French Waterloo, German Nightmare?

Did the EU Nice Summit mark the beginning of a worsening relationship among EU member countries?

December 20, 2000

Did the EU Nice Summit mark the beginning of a worsening relationship among EU member countries?

What might be called a French Waterloo in the short run could well turn into a long-lasting nightmare for Germany. Europe now stands to become more German in the future, and that, in the end, has never been very good. European history, complex as it may appear, is following a very simple path: either France and Germany manage to keep the continent together — or the continent simply doesn’t keep together.

The period of European cooperation on integration lasted from 1957 to 1989, during which the “Methode Jean Monnet” produced an ever closer union of European states through economic integration. It was also a period in which unquestioned Franco-German cooperation ensured European dynamism. But soon, following the just concluded Nice summit, all of this might be considered an exception to the long-term historic rule. We might come to realize that, at Nice, the integration principle was once again replaced by the principle of power plays in Europe.

Now, history is back in Europe with all its devils. Or, as Luxembourg’s Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker put it: “If Nice were to happen every day, we’d find ourselves quickly back in the trenches, though perhaps not shooting with live ammunition …”

Indeed, there were plenty of confrontations on view at Nice, between big and small nations, and between rich and poor. But the main event that happened in Nice was that Germany slid out of the French bed, leaving a Europe to suffer from a drawn-out love story’s sad ending.

Let’s focus on France’s mistakes first. France’s leaders essentially confused their much-heralded notion of ‘parité’ with vanity. In other words, for the vain symbolism of wanting to keep as many votes as Germany in the European Council, France may ultimately have paid too steep a price: a structural German hegemony in the European institutional system.

Now consider Germany’s delusions. There is no need for Germans to shout out victory loudly, since their new power is a burden as much as it is a gift. This is a lesson German political elites still tend to forget.

But one key question must be asked: What good is this engagement if there are no more good friends to defend the same European ideas? It’s difficult to imagine Britain’s Prime Minister Tony Blair, or Spain’s President Jose Maria Aznar, jumping on the train of Joschka Fischer’s idea of a more or less federal Europe. Germany’ Foreign Minister Fischer lacks majority backing for his ideas in Germany itself.

Germany may thus find itself quite alone in shouldering the consequences of EU enlargement that Nice failed to cope with. The true post-Nice task is nothing less than the reorganization of the continent.

And the historic lesson that Germany should have learned from the past is that it can’t keep the continent together alone. Even the ingenious Mr. Bismarck couldn’t accomplish that. For all his saber-rattling and diplomatic skills, he forgot to arrange for proper maintenance of his system of alliances for future generations.

Nevertheless, it is meaningless to appoint a guilty party. The Nice summit may have fallen victim to the arrogance of a French presidency ruffled by this period of ‘cohabitation.’ Or, it may have suffered from a German haughtiness that masqueraded under a false flag of “fair play,” all the while knowing that in a bigger Europe nearly everything will fall into the German lap.

The Nice talks failed to produce a dependable outcome. And with it, emerging Eastern European markets and trade remained in the Hinterhof, tightly under the political dominion of a German kingdom.

To feel sorry for the French, who have missed several opportunities in the 1990s to work out a European design with the Germans, is a wasted emotion. Their tremendous political and economic inability to adopt to the post-’89 one-Germany reality hurts them still eleven years later.

The only sorrow worth expressing is for the falling down of the European integration project. As it is, given the momentous tasks on Europe’s agenda, the continent as a whole may be filled with more turmoil than in any of the last decades.