Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Belgium yaps at France

In response to Nicolas Sarkozy’ slightly odd proposal to extend the Franco-German motor to include Britain, Italy, Spain and Poland, Guy Verhofstadt (left), Prime Minister of Belgium lost his rag, not to put too fine a point on it.

According to AFP, what annoyed him particularly was the invitation extended to Poland, a newcomer to the EU and one whose economic situation is no better than that of most of “Old Europe”. (But then, according to AFP, the G6 does not include Spain, which would make it G5.)

Angrily M Verhofstadt explained that if there was a gridlock in EU decision-making or reform, it had nothing to do with disputes between large countries and small.
"It is not so much the opposition between big and little states which blocks the decision-making process, but opposition which reigns between big states."
As it happens, the gridlock is created by the centralized EU system, which is daily expanding to take in more and more areas in European political life. Then again, M Verhofstadt ought to know something about gridlock in decision-making. The Belgian system is so complicated, one wonders whether any decision ever does get implemented (apart from the banning popular political parties, that is, which immediately reappear under a different name).

Why M Sarkozy made the statement he did is not entirely clear, although the fact that the next presidential election campaign effectively kicked off while M Chirac was in hospital must have something to do with it.

Why Poland was invited to join the G6 is even more interesting. On one level, this makes sense, as Poland is one of the large countries, the largest of the new East European states.

On the other hand, it is probably the one that is having the worst economic problems and the one in which reforms have fallen behind. We shall see how the new government will fare.

There is, however, the matter of foreign policy. Poland (as well as the other East European member states) has notoriously been reluctant the Franco-German “European” line in foreign matters. President Kwasniewski was heavily courted and applauded by President Bush and the policy is unlikely to change. Furthermore, as we have written several times, Poland has been conducting her own policy on the eastern border, building up friendly relations with Ukraine and not so friendly ones with Belarus and Russia. In this she had the full support of another member state, Lithuania.

M Sarkozy may well feel that it is time to try to bring the East Europeans back into line and that President Chirac’s infamous outburst may not have been the right way of going about it.

There is one more aspect to the relationship between France and the new member states. The former was opposed to the EU’s enlargement to the east for several years, partly for economic and partly for political reasons.

The economic reasons were straightforward: the poor, largely agricultural countries were likely to siphon off EU money. This has not happened yet but will eventually.

The political aspect is more complicated. The accession of East Europeans, it was felt in France, would tilt the EU’s centre even more heavily towards Germany politically but, frighteningly, also towards possible Anglospheric influence. When accession became unavoidable and imminent the French government spent huge sums to promote France and French culture in all the countries.

Poland is special. Of all the East and Central European countries it is the one that was traditionally Francophile. While others learned German and, possibly, English, the Poles learned French. No longer. Poland is becoming Anglophile. Young Poles learn English and, despite the alarums and excursions on the subject of Polish plumbers, try to get temporary jobs in English speaking countries.

Would-be President Nicolas Sarkozy, one assumes, is keenly aware of the problem and this may have been his initial attempt to deal with it. By doing so, however, he seems to have antagonized one of France’s more stalwart supporters within the EU: Belgium.

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