Thursday, September 1, 2005

The time is gone when Dominique de Villepin — now French prime minister — was lecturing the United States at the United Nations and French President Jacques Chirac was telling the new members of the European Union that they lost an opportunity to shut up. Arrogance does not pay, and now the French government is adopting a low profile since the European project seems in a dead end.

European consensus has not been reached over the last two years which witnessed three crucial crises mainly due to the French stubbornness. In each of theses crisis, the same scheme is to be found: A French and German couple promoting a dirigiste agenda opposed to a free-trade group composed of Eastern, Nordic and English-speaking nations.

That was indeed the case during the diplomatic crisis over the intervention in Iraq, the political crisis over the referendum on the European Constitutional Treaty, and the economic crisis over the budgetary negotiations which failed this summer.

For this last one, we should notice that negotiations failed partly because Mr. Chirac is adding to his anti-Americanism a real “anti-Britishism.”AChampionof French collectivism, he is deeply against economical liberalism and strongly opposes any kind of reforms that are promoting free trade. Therefore, Mr. Chirac is prepared to oppose the new president of the European Union, Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Now that the European project is in a dead point, the entire myth of France’s grandeur and influence is collapsing because France needs two things to be of influence: Germany and Europe. Mr. Chirac is losing both, and here lies the hope and good opportunity for Europe. France led Europe into a dead end, yet this project can be saved by Britain. Would it not be ironic?

Let’s consider the last 200 years or so. Europe has always been put in motion by three powers: the United Kingdom, Germany and France. In this three-power game, a country had to be one of the two to matter, as 19th-century German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck wisely advised. France always succeeded in being one of the two through alliance with the United Kingdom, especially in the first half of the 20th century, and with Germany in the second half mainly to build Europe.

An alliance between London and Berlin is not in the interest of Paris. If France survived as a power, it is thanks to the United Kingdom or to Germany, since it has been a long time since France has been able to be a power on its own.

Through blindness and refusal of adaptation and integration in the new global economy, Mr. Chirac has disrupted the equilibrium that made France a power that mattered. Mr. Blair’s outward movement to fit and integrate the global economy by making Europe an open society to face new challenges is much more promising than Mr. Chirac’s inward movement towards protectionism and collectivism.

Mr. Blair’s domestic successes are appealing to the most probable future German chancelor, Angela Merkel. She is already preparing a shift in German politics toward the United Kingdom, giving up the French collectivist friendship. She would therefore welcome market-based reforms. A London — Berlin rapprochement would create the new engine of Europe that may relaunch the European process.

The United Kingdom and Germany could wait to implement free trade policies. Such a move would be an excellent signal sent to Eastern countries that already adopted economically liberal measures such as flat tax. Thus the East could be better integrated into the European Union. In all, the British put up with a German backing could result in having Europe back on its feet and on the right economic trail. Optimistic? Maybe, but probable. Let’s see.

But whatever happens now, France is left behind. It is becoming what it really is: a second-rate country. This is Jacques Chirac’s achievement. But may be it is better like this, since Europe cannot afford any longer Mr. Chirac’s losership.

Sylvain Charat is director of policy studies in the French think tank Eurolibnetwork.

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