- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 25, 2003

BERLIN — Germany and France once again are talking up a closer bilateral union, this time at the head of a “core Europe” after talks over a European constitution collapsed earlier this month.

German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder said he foresaw a “two-speed Europe” after the contentious summit of 25 current and prospective members of the European Union in Brussels. “A core Europe is a logical consequence,” he said.

French President Jacques Chirac predicted that an EU “pioneer group” led by Paris and Berlin would “provide an engine, an example, that will allow Europe to go faster, further and better.”

The proposal is the latest step in the deepening Franco-German relationship, a partnership that sometimes has set off suspicions in other European capitals and across the Atlantic.

In the months leading up to the EU summit, both countries repeatedly warned Poland and Spain — the main opponents of the proposed draft constitution — that they would work together to overcome resistance to a new European constitution and closer integration. Spain and Poland opposed changes in the current draft that would have weakened their voting rights in the new EU executive body.

A month before the summit, French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin had been talking up the advantages of a “Franco-German union,” possibly to chill opposition of the draft constitution, the French newspaper Le Monde said.

The process of rapprochement, Mr. de Villepin said, is “the only gamble that we can’t afford to lose.”

The Chirac-Schroeder bond wasn’t always so close.

When he came to office five years ago, Mr. Schroeder seemed more interested in cultivating Britain than France. In 2000, the French and German governments were so often at odds that they created a series of informal meetings called the “Blaesheim process,” just as the EU debate on its future was gearing up.

Opposition to the Iraq war united the two leaders, as did the desire to move at a faster pace toward European integration.

The symbolic climax of the new closeness came at an October EU gathering, in which the absent Mr. Schroeder asked Mr. Chirac to represent him. The French president arrived at the summit in a German Audi, grinning about his prank afterward.

Mr. Chirac and Mr. Schroeder now meet constantly. So do their ministers, as well as representatives of their respective parliaments and regional French and German leaders.

There is constant talk of the “deepening” relationship.

At the end of October, French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin and Mr. Schroeder met for two more days in western France to reaffirm their countries’ ever-closer relationship.

Some see the relationship between the pair as a natural alliance, the two economic and political heavyweights of continental Europe coming together.

“It is a difficult relationship, as France and Germany are different in big ways,” said Andreas Schwab, president of the Franco-German Forum, an association based in Freiburg, Germany, that promotes bilateral ties.

“Schroeder interrupted the once-close relationship, then realized that this does not work. He realized that there is no other option for Germany.”

Some EU countries watch developments warily, worried about the bloc being dominated by two major players just as it adds 10 members next year.

“After October 2002, the ever-present fears of other EU countries really became concrete following a series of bilateral initiatives,” said Martin Koopmann, an specialist in Franco-German relations in Berlin. “What needs to happen is for the two to look for other partners in Europe.”

Mr. Chirac has rejected such concerns, saying that “everyone knows agreement between the two countries is key to building Europe.”

“Moreover, when in the past we have chanced not to be in agreement, we have very swiftly been denounced by all our partners as being the ones blocking the building of Europe,” he told reporters in Berlin in June.

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