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An alternative union in Europe?

By Vaiju Naravane

While the noises about a possible Franco-German union are essentially early warning shots aimed principally at Poland and Spain, they are also a pragmatic setting-out of scenarios for possible future action if the E.U. Constitution fails to win acceptance in its present form.

FRENCH AND German officials have gone public with the idea that their two countries could contemplate a union if the European Constitution fails to win approval. Officials in Paris and Berlin have said that if negotiations over the European Constitution, now under way, were to run into a stalemate, the Franco-German duo, constituting Europe's two largest economies that have long been the locomotive pushing European integration, would move towards a union in the spheres of foreign policy, defence, education and economic and social reform.

Such a scenario however is being evoked with a caveat — that France and Germany would seek fusion only if Europe's prospective 25 members failed to reach any agreement on the constitution. The tone was set recently by the French Prime Minister, Jean-Pierre Raffarin, who said: "If a Europe of 25 fails, what will be left for France? The initiative of Franco-German rapprochement."

Political observers say these statements are essentially intended to put pressure on countries like Poland and Spain, regarded as the major stumbling blocks to an early agreement on a Constitution for the European Union. Both countries won significant advantages in terms of voting rights during the Nice treaty negotiations three years ago which they are now loath to give up.

Under the draft Constitution, which aims at streamlining structures and systems in order to avoid institutional paralysis, the E.U.'s decision-making process would call for a majority vote representing at least 60 per cent of the Union's population. That would effectively enable larger states such as France or Germany to block legislation coming from a group of smaller states. For while smaller states might be in a majority in terms of the number of votes, they would fail to carry the motion if large member states decided to withhold support. Spain and Poland which have substantially smaller populations compared to France, Germany or Britain, are bargaining hard to keep special voting rights they won in parleys three years ago.

The E.U. nations failed to reach agreement on the issue in Rome last October and there is every likelihood of their failing to compromise at the Inter-Governmental Conference next month.

The draft Constitution drawn up by a specially appointed Convention headed by the former French President, Valery Giscard 'Estaing, has also drawn criticism from several countries for its markedly secularist tone. The fact that Europe's "Christian roots" find no mention therein has drawn forth howls of protest from countries like Poland and Italy, where Silvio Berlusconi, who currently heads the E.U.'s rotating presidency has pledged to have a "religion clause" inserted in the final document.

Respected commentators like economist Jean-Paul Fitoussi also deplore the failure of the document to address the question of what basic economic principles should underlie and govern a future European federation. In order to reach a consensus, Europe has gone from one bad compromise solution to another, shoving the real problems under the carpet of obfuscation from year to year. This desire for compromise is likely to make Europe less, not more governable, Mr. Fitoussi argues. In the circumstances, he says it is perhaps right that Europeans recognise the many issues that separate them, rather than go down the path of an illusory unity. It is better not to venture beyond the idea of a common market if there is no real homogeneity of views within Europe.

The French and the Germans are fully aware of the divisive nature of the debate within Europe today. And while the noises about a possible Franco-German union are essentially early warning shots aimed principally at Poland and Spain, they are also a pragmatic setting-out of scenarios for possible future action if the E.U. Constitution fails to win acceptance in its present form.

The Franco-German relationship has never been this close. Last month, the German Chancellor, Gerhard Schroeder, asked not his own deputy but French President Jacques Chirac to represent him at a speech before the European Council in Brussels. And the French Foreign Minister, Dominique de Villepin, described the strengthening of the Franco-German relationship as "the one historical challenge we cannot afford to lose."

Such declarations would not have been possible without the spectacular impetus given to ties between the two countries by the 2002 election of Chancellor Schroeder in Germany and the re-election of President Chirac in France. Another factor that played a crucial role in bringing the two countries even closer was the Iraq crisis in which France and Germany found themselves on the same side of the fence. France has had a long history of "principled" opposition to the United States. For Germany, however, which has been a political dwarf under the U.S. thumb for over half a century, speaking out publicly against the U.S. was groundbreaking. Another unifying factor is the realisation that both countries face similar economic and social problems.

Almost 10 years after the Germans first proposed a mini-federation within Europe — a strong inner core — comprising France, Germany and the Benelux countries, the French have begun to see the wisdom of the proposal. At the time, in 1994, when Christian democrats Karl Lammers and Wolfgang Schauble made the proposal under Chancellor Kohl, the French rejected it as an imposition of the German federative model on the more centralist France. The angry French also saw it as an attempt to cut their ties with Latin southern Europe.

Today the idea of a Franco-German Union is being seriously considered by experts and politicians, although it is still too soon to launch a proper public debate on the subject. Pascal Lamy, the brilliant French Commissioner to the E.U., says a Franco-German "Bund" or federation should concentrate on spheres not adequately dealt with by the European Union or by the German Landers. Which would, in substance, mean defence, foreign policy, economic and social policy and research for which a special federal budget should be constituted. For Mr. Lamy, this would also mean common armies, diplomatic corps and a sharing of France's United Nations Security Council seat.

So how could a public and democratic debate be launched? Despite their convergence of views, France and Germany are founded on two very different societal models, one centrist, the other federative. Gunter Verheugen, Germany's chief negotiator at European enlargement parleys, has suggested a confederation at the inter-governmental level that would include the populations of the two countries but which would not lead to the creation of new institutions.

Commissioner Lamy has proposed a congress with an equal number of French and German representatives, a Franco-German Commission to administer the Bund. While Green Euro MP Daniel Cohn-Bendit feels a union would only work if it is the fruit of joint parliamentary elections.

There are, of course, many opponents to the idea on both sides of the Rhine. Despite the adoption of the Euro, an integration of social and fiscal policy still raises eyebrows. The teaching of French or German as a second language in schools in both the countries has seen a decline in recent years with a marked preference for English. French or German music, television shows, books and cinema find little favour across the Rhine. Cultural reticence with eyes on both sides fixed firmly on the Anglo-Saxon world could be one of the biggest hurdles to Franco-German fusion.

Several leading Germans while favouring joint defence forces say they should be firmly anchored within NATO. The French on the other hand dream of creating a purely European defence alliance completely independent of, and as a counterweight to, NATO. Germany has backed the plan for a separate European defence initiative but recently, bowing to pressure from Washington, said it would not press for a separate E.U. defence headquarters — yet.

Washington thoroughly disapproves of any possible Franco-German union. Richard Perle, senior U.S. defence adviser, earlier this month urged Germany to stop following France on the international political stage saying the Franco-German relationship was harming ties with the U.S. He said the depth of the Franco-German partnership was further damaging the E.U.'s already strained ties with the U.S.

The idea of a Franco-German union has also sent alarm bells ringing across Europe. Several countries, especially Italy, Spain, Poland and Britain see this as a dangerous evolution that could break the E.U. To which the French and Germans smartly reply: We are all for European unity. But not on your terms.

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