Europe's foreign policy: an empty cockpit without the franco-German duo

This article appeared in the Wall St Journal Europe

26 March 2010

Who's in Charge Here, Anyway?

The Rhine has become wider than the Atlantic, as Berlin and Paris stop speaking European

The European Union summit this week should beware of Greeks bearing their crisis and asking what they should do with it. The answer may come from the French socialist, Dominique Strauss Kahn, at the IMF. It may come from two European conservatives, José Manuel Barroso and Herman von Rompuy. They both have the grand title of EU president, though who gives orders to whom is not clear.

In the end the Greeks will find their solution in the twin rules of the Oracle of Delphi: "Know thyself" and "Nothing to excess." It will be painful, just as Britain's emergence from an excess of statism and public spending was painful after the IMF took charge in 1976. But it is doable and must be done.

The real question in Brussels is: "Quo Vadis Europe?" Where is Europe going, and is there a pilot in the cockpit of the EU?

In the past there were two pilots in charge. They were the president of France and the chancellor of Germany. Konrad Adenauer and Charles de Gaulle; Willy Brandt and Georges Pompidou; Helmut Schmidt and Valéry Giscard d'Estaing; and Helmut Kohl and Francois Mitterrand managed to subordinate the natural national egos of their great nations to forge and advance some shared sense of commonality as they constructed a post-national Europe. Even Gerhard Schröder and Jacques Chirac maintained this Franco-German togetherness when they lined up against President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair over Iraq.

Now we are seeing a slow re-nationalization of Europe. The Rhine has become wider than the Atlantic as France and Germany have stopped speaking European and are insisting on national priorities über alles.

The unedifying row over the new foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, is a symptom of this lack of belief in the post-Lisbon Treaty European Union. It would little matter if she combined the diplomatic qualities of Metternich, Talleyrand and Henry Kissinger. There is no European message on foreign policy, so shooting the messenger will have to do.

EU nations cannot even agree a common position on a peripheral issue like Kosovo or prevent Greece from stopping Macedonia's EU and NATO accession because of its name. On Turkey, on Russia, on immigration, on energy, on human rights in China or Cuba, the leading European nations are at odds and delivering contradictory messages.

There is no agreement on how to grow the European economy. Now Germany is being slated because it exports lots of goods. It is a funny Europe where having a trade surplus is now a policy error. French President Nicolas Sarkozy has unleashed his attack dog, the New York lawyer-turned-finance minister Christine Lagarde, to hector and lecture Berlin on its economic model. German Chancellor Angela Merkel responds by saying that euro-zone countries that breach the stability and growth pact should be expelled. Given that France has been one of the worst culprits, notably when Mr. Sarkozy was finance minister, it is clear who she has in her sights.

Compare this to de Gaulle trying out his lycée German as he invited Adenauer to his home at Colombey les deux Églises in the 1960s, or Mitterrand and Kohl roughly pushing Margaret Thatcher to one side to surge ahead with the single market. They made it a success by enlarging Europe to 15 from nine, and laying the foundations for the euro and the reunification of Europe from Galway to Galicia.

Today the clamor is for less Europe. The German constitutional court seeks to limit German engagement in the EU. The European Parliament is home to extremist parties including outright anti-Semites from Britain and eastern Europe. Some 85% of the EU's budget in 1988 came from customs duties and VAT. In 2010 more than three-quarters of the EU's budget comes from direct transfers from member states. No one notices income that flows automatically from VAT or sugar duties. Everyone notices income transferred from national budgets that might otherwise be spent on pensions, or schools, or defense, or whatever—but that instead is allocated to the bureaucrats of Brussels.

So European institutions that were once the servants of Europeans are now seen as dysfunctional and greedy for money that could be better spent at home. How many top Europeans do the U.S., China and other new world players like Turkey, India and Brazil have to accept at G-20 and other global parleys? Why should European citizens vote for a European Parliament that houses so many racists and weird fringe politicians?

When will France and Germany again decide to be co-pilots guiding Europe's future? Britain is becoming increasingly detached and David Cameron has made clear that if he wins power he would prefer to see no Europe, speak no Europe and hear no Europe. That satisfies his internal party problems. And such unsplendid isolation is nothing new in British history.

The real answer to the European question has to come from Berlin and Paris. But no one wants to provide it.