- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 22, 2003

BRUSSELS, Belgium, Jan. 21 (UPI) — German and French parliamentarians celebrated 40 years of friendship between the two countries Wednesday at a lavish ceremony in the Versailles Palace on the outskirts of Paris.

But many commentators are wondering whether the latest reaffirmation of wedding vows is the beginning of a new romance or a cynical attempt to paper over the cracks in a loveless marriage.

Charles Grant, director of the London-based Center for European Reform says: "Superficially, the French and Germans are back together. They are co-habiting and telling the neighbors that they love each other again. But it is not like the days of old."

"The days of old" is shorthand for the heady years of the early 1960s when French President Charles de Gaulle and German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer put aside over a century of bloodshed to sign the Elysee Treaty, which commits the former enemies to settle their long standing differences in the interest of European integration .

It also refers to the 1980s and early 1990s when French leader Francois Mitterrand joined forces with his German counterpart Helmut Kohl to breathe new life into the European project.

Until recently it looked as if the Franco-German motor that had powered the European Union for more than half a century was about to splutter to a halt.

The current leaders of France and Germany – Jacques Chirac and Gerhard Schroeder – come from opposite ends of the political spectrum and have conflicting ideas about the future direction of the European Union.

Perhaps more important, there is little personal chemistry between the two men and British Prime Minister Tony Blair wasted no time exploiting the divisions in a series of charm offensives.

For a short interval it looked as if both leaders had fallen under Blair's spell as France and Britain pioneered a new defense identity for the Union and London and Berlin lobbied other EU states to reform their sluggish economies.

But as Grant points out: "People don't want to be seen holding hands with the Brits any more," because of London's ambivalence to the euro and its hawkishness on Iraq.

In the late autumn, perhaps more out of duty than idealism, the French and German leaders ended their brief flirtation with Blair and promised to be faithful to each other again.

It helped that Chirac was given free rein to forge France's foreign policy after the center-right's stunning success in last year's elections. It also helped that a weakened Schroeder saw an alliance with France as the only opportunity for Germany to punch above its weight on the European stage.

But the real reason why France and Germany are back as Europe's successful double-act is because both sides realize that when Paris and Berlin strike a deal, the chances of the rest of the European Union following suit are high.

"The combined force of Germany and France is not always enough to overcome the obstacles Europe faces, but experience shows that no European project can succeed if France and Germany do not actively support it," wrote Chirac last week.

There is a touch of Gaullist arrogance in this assertion, but the events of the past three months appear to bear out the French president's analysis.

In October, a private lunch between Chirac and Schroeder paved the way for a historic deal on how to pay for the eastward expansion of the 15-member bloc. And earlier this month, a dinner between the two leaders in Paris sparked a heated debate about the EU's institutional architecture.

In a classic EU fudge, France — which believes in the ultimate supremacy of the nation state — agreed to allow the head of the European Commission to be chosen by directly elected Euro-deputies in return for a German pledge to support the creation of a powerful new EU presidential post.

The proposal drew immediate criticism from the commission, the European Parliament and smaller member states at a meeting of the EU's own Convention on the Future of Europe Monday and Tuesday.

Irish government delegate Dick Roche described the plan as an "institutional coup," while Dutch representative Gijs de Vries said a double-headed EU presidency would lead to "confusion, acrimony and stalemate."

Many convention members were as opposed to the substance of the latest Franco-German proposal as the style in which it was arrived at.

Johannes Voggenhuber, an Austrian Green member of the European Parliament, said, "I am pleased the Franco-German motor is running again but I would be more pleased if it could get out of reverse gear."

Others said that dinner deals between the leaders of two largest states were no way to run a Europe of 15 — and soon-to-be 25 — states.

If other European states do not like the vice-like grip France and Germany have over EU affairs, they had better get used to it, because in the coming years, relations between the two continental powers are likely to get stronger before they get weaker.

Addressing the assembled masses of the French and German parliaments Wednesday, Chirac and Schroeder announced plans for joint Cabinet meetings, to appoint high-ranking officials to coordinate policies, to work together more closely in the United Nations, to promote a common EU defense policy and offer joint citizenship to French and German nationals.

Much of this is ceremonial window-dressing designed to paper over profound differences between the two countries on Iraq, economic reform and the future direction of the European Union.

But as Grant states: "Because the French and Germans represent such opposite poles in the debate, if they can agree on a common position, it is fairly easy for the EU to move forward."

Having only two designated drivers for the European Union might bother the other 13 passengers, but most believers in the European ideal are more concerned about moving toward the treaty-bound pledge of forging an "ever closer union" than with who is piloting the vehicle.

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