- The Washington Times - Monday, January 27, 2003

WASHINGTON, Jan. 27 (UPI) — The German word for France is "Frankreich" — literally, the empire of the Franks. This allusion to the Germanic barbarians who conquered Roman Gaul at the beginning of the Dark Ages, and who gave to modern France their name, passes unnoticed on a daily basis on the lips of almost all who speak it.

However, the ghost of the ancient cousinage between the old German and French aristocracies must have stirred a bit this past week.

In the course of an elaborate set of events staged to reaffirm modern Franco-German friendship, including a proposal for a common Franco-German citizenship, Pascal Lamy and Gnter Verheugen, respectively French and German members of the European Commission, called for a full-blown federal union of France and Germany. This is an idea that has been kicking around for a while among some French and German intellectuals.

It will be interesting to see whether the relatively modest list of measures proposed by Germany's Gerhard Schroeder and France's Jacques Chirac actually get implemented, and if so, whether they generate any further enthusiasm for a full Franco-German Union.

The first question the idea brings up is "What's the point?" After all, France and Germany have committed themselves to turning the European Union into a full-blown federal state, a United States of Europe whether it takes that name or not.

They already share the same currency, the euro, and are both governed financially by the European Central Bank in Frankfurt.

Both French and Germans carry maroon passports marked "European Union" and share — at least in theory — a common European citizenship. French and Germans, like other citizens of EU member states, can do business, live and work in each others' countries, and can vote and become candidates for office in each others' local and European parliament elections.

So why would a Franco-German Union be anything more than window-dressing? What difference would it make?

Of course, if the idea were taken seriously, the answer would be "a lot." "European" citizenship is still rather notional. Continental European welfare states have an elaborate structure of benefits and entitlements, most of which are linked to some degree to citizenship.

Despite the "single market" ideal of the European Union, there are still numerous layers of national regulation and practice that can keep a German product or service out of France, and vice versa. Each has a separate pension system with its unique obligations and circumstances, although both of them are in trouble.

Creating a full homogenization between these aspects of the French and German polity and economy would certainly bring some economies of scale and lower transaction costs for both economies. Merging the two pension and benefit systems would not help either — it would be a bit like lashing the Titanic to the Lusitania; neither is going to keep the other afloat.

However, it might just be possible to sneak in some genuine reforms to the combined system under the smokescreen of the merger. Perhaps this is one of the unstated goals.

Although such social and economic homogenization would be difficult and time-consuming, it would be far quicker and easier to achieve on a binational scale than throughout today's whole European Union, much less tomorrow's, with the arrival of the new Eastern European members. In the economic and political arena, the proposal has a number of attractive points.

The combined union of roughly 140 million people would be by far the largest state in the European Union. A federal executive would speak for all of those people and dominate European councils. A combined Franco-Germany would be more likely to retain France's current (and problematic) permanent U.N. Security Council seat than France alone. It would combine France's nuclear status, diplomatic strengths and presence outside Europe with Germany's larger economy and population.

It is also a tactic admission by Lamy and Verheugen that their current strategy for the European Union has become somewhat problematic. Britain, despite its Euro-enthusiastic prime minister, has forsaken neither its own national currency nor its policy alignment with America on key issues, most visible Iraq.

The Continental European economies remain sluggish with high unemployment. The new Eastern European entrants are annoyingly unenthusiastic about making the European Union into a counterweight to the United States: they'd rather cooperate with the United States.

The new European Constitution under deliberation will probably have rough sledding in those states so un-European as to let their citizens vote on it. Therefore, moving ahead on a more achievable Franco-German Union now might be the best option available.

It is when we move from the realm of economics and power politics, in which the proposal makes considerable sense, to the more fundamental issue of civic cohesion, that the Franco-German union proposal raises the most interesting issues. The increasing centralization of the European Union and its imminent conversion into a federal state has raised concerns among a wide range of French on the left and right alike.

Much of Le Pen's support in last year's presidential primaries was due to concern over the erosion of French national identity. Still, many French could still believe that they might be Europeans and French at the same time. After all, the French have always thought of themselves as Europeans, at least in theory.

But what does it mean to be a Franco-German? Can one be a Franco-German and French at the same time? Could any such union ever be more than a political framework, in which France and Germany would continue to have essentially distinct identities? But if there is no merged identity, what happens when the Germans outvote the French in the national parliament, as they can always do so long as people think of themselves primarily along national lines. Will every such defeat bring a call for dissolving the union?

In short, the old European issue remains: how can you have democracy without a demos — a people who think of themselves as connected to each other? Perhaps the fact that a state without a coherent nation will be more subject to control by a political bureaucracy is a plus in the eyes of the union's proponents.

Such a union, although it makes some sense economically and in terms of power politics, threatens to be not Frankreich plus Deutscheland but the Frankenreich: a political creature stitched together out of unlike parts and brought to life by unnatural means.

In this, it resembles its larger self, the would-be European superstate. In both cases, citizens of authentic nation-states like France might soon be called upon to decide where their true identity lies.

(The views articulated in James Bennett's weekly Anglosphere column for United Press International are his own and are not necessarily shared by UPI.)

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