Friday, February 29, 2008

A matter of understanding

Picked up by The Independent after it had been doing the rounds in the Continental press is the news that the love affair between Sarkozy and Merkel is going through (another) rocky patch.

Spiegel got to it earlier with a story headed, "Postponed Summit Exposes Franco-German Rift". This has, says the paper, "revived speculation that the German chancellor strongly opposes Sarkozy's desire to form a Mediterranean Union." This then is no mere lover's tiff, but a full-blown rift over policy, or so it seems.

The AFP agency then developed the story, when France and Germany called off a second top-level meeting, this one between finance minister Christine Lagarde and her German counterpart Peer Steinbrueck. This was the first of a planned twice-yearly meeting with the heads of both central banks.

Apparently, the German financial newspaper Handelsblatt took great umbrage, declaring: "The French government no longer finds time for its German partner," wrote. Die Welt, on the other hand, claimed the talks were called off after Merkel had refused to write a joint op-ed piece with Sarkozy about the Mediterranean Union

But, noted AFP, the Mediterranean project is not the only issue over which the two countries disagree. As we know, Paris and Berlin are also at odds on economic issues; namely the role of the European Central Bank and France's deficit.

Also, where there might be serious policy differences, there are reports that personal relations between Sarkozy and Merkel are frosty. This is no continuation of the close relations between those classic Franco-German partnerships of de Gaulle-Adenauer, Giscard-Schmidt, Mitterrand-Kohl or even Chirac-Schroeder.

Thus, by the time The Independent got the story, it was able to report, "Europe's closest friendship falls apart", noting that: "Privately, and not so privately, the talk in both capitals is of a serious rift in the single most important national partnership in Europe." At the heart of the quarrel, says this paper, "is the strained relationship between the two leaders".

In this, the paper – offering one of its ponderous leading articles - sees both "a problem and an opportunity" - for Britain. Both leaders, it says, are vying for the EU leadership and, for Britain, division between the two pillars of the EU offers greater potential sway. "Things are in the melt in a way we have not seen for years."

Concluding that, "those who think the politics of Europe is boring do not understand it properly," this newspaper is perhaps indulging in the perennial Europhile fantasy that the UK can somehow become the honest broker between France and Germany, thus holding the balance of power. That harps back to classic British foreign policy, and has beguiled successive prime ministers, right up to Tony Blair, each of whom thought they could separate France and Germany.

With Blair, it was the idea that he could offer high-level defence co-operation with France, which he did in St Malo in 1998. Nevertheless, hopes were soon when, less than a week later, Chirac and Schröder wrote a joint letter reaffirming the closeness of their alliance. The current Franco-German alliance is far more enduring than the Foreign Office has yet realised.

Nevertheless, with strong expectations of a new Anglo-French defence deal in the offing, it looks on the face of it as if history could repeat itself. According to former European Defence Agency chief, Nick Witney, writing for EU Observer, "Franco-British" defence co-operation could be at a "historic crossroads".

A substantial agenda, writes Witney, set out in a secret report prepared over the past two years, is waiting to be taken forward. Some doubt that Britain will be ready for any new defence initiative with France whilst ratification of the Lisbon Treaty is still under debate in the UK Parliament, he continues, but Sarkozy's overtures to the US and to Nato - soon to be manifested with more French troops for Afghanistan - have made the politics easier.

Ostensibly, Witney adds, both sides have the best of incentives to increase their co-operation - financial necessity:

At the outset of their present defence review, the French admitted that their forward re-equipment plans were unaffordable by over 40 percent. The cash crunch in the UK Ministry of Defence is almost as severe. Pressure of operations is also taking its toll on men and machinery on both sides of the Channel, tightening the financial bind.

Sooner rather than later, both countries will be facing major cuts in their defence capabilities - unless they can find ways to help each other by pooling their efforts and resources.

Witney is confident that a plan to do just that has now been identified. Almost two years ago, the last Blair-Chirac summit set up a small, high-level working group to work on deepening bilateral co-operation. The group, comprising the two relevant deputy defence ministers and two top industry executives, submitted their report last July. It remains under wraps. But it describes the current moment as "an historic cross-roads"; and it contains a long list of practical, concrete proposals for pooling resources and sharing the benefits.

However, 2008 is not 1998 and Gordon Brown is not Blair. Already, we have noted a considerable cooling in the Brown administration towards European defence integration.

Not least, the conflict in Afghanistan - and, to a lesser extent, in Iraq - has driven British defence forces towards closer co-operation with the US, while operational needs have dictated equipment profiles different from those envisaged at St Malo – the latter directed at equipping a rapid reaction force to fight a "future war".

Where the situation might be different this time, though, is if the split between Sarkozy and Merkel continues – even if it is more apparent than real. Then we could then see Sarkozy courting Brown, offering juicy deals in joint procurement or some such (the carrier project comes to mind) – which have the potential to ease the pressure on the UK defence budget.

Tempting these might be, but Brown would be well advised to exercise caution. Any French overtures are unlikely to be genuinely directed at closer ties with the UK. More likely, they will be aimed at invoking jealousies in the Germans, in the manner of a jilted lover flirting with a new swain (what a horrible thought) aimed at prompting a reconciliation.

Nevertheless, as long as operations in Afghanistan continue at high tempo, Brown's options are limited. Despite a French promise of greater involvement in Afghanistan, French and British strategic objectives are so very different that there can be little scope for further defence co-operation.

On that basis, Sarkozy and Merkel are going to have to make up without British intervention, which makes it all the more interesting to see how far they are prepared to let the current spat run. In that sense, The Independent is right: "those who think the politics of Europe is boring do not understand it properly." The only thing is, does that newspaper understand it?


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