Europe’s not so eternal triangles

April 2, 2011 - 0:0

Europe can be a confusing place. Germany and France have been marching in step towards something resembling European economic government. They are at missiles drawn when it comes to Muammer Gaddafi. Britain has joined France at the head of the European coalition enforcing the Libyan no-fly zone. Yet David Cameron insists on leaving the room when talk turns to Europe’s single currency.

This curious triangular geometry was on display the other day at the summit of European Union leaders in Brussels. In matters economic, Germany is the pivotal power. Angela Merkel all but dictated the terms of the financial stability mechanism designed to underpin the euro. France has decided it prefers a German euro to no euro at all.
Mr. Cameron has decided that even to sit at the same table with eurozone members would somehow taint his commitment to keeping the pound. Such is his Tory party’s neuralgia, the prime minister said he would leave an empty chair when leaders of a new euro pact meet in future to discuss closer integration.
Libya, however, saw Mr. Cameron step up to the summit stage with Nicolas Sarkozy. Ms Merkel was in quieter, if not chastened voice. Berlin’s opposition to the bombing that halted Col Gaddafi’s forces at the gates of Benghazi drew much sniping from other summiteers. She offered a small olive branch in the form of a promise to strengthen the German presence in Afghanistan.
The damage to Ms Merkel’s credibility among Germany’s allies has been considerable. Her stance has confirmed the impression that Berlin’s strategic relationships play second fiddle to obsessive tactical maneuvering at home. The EU cannot build a common foreign policy on German neutrality.
Politicians and policymakers at the German Marshall Fund’s annual Brussels Forum observed that it was one thing for Germany to question the wisdom of another military entanglement in the Arab world; even, as I heard one foreign minister remark, for Berlin to stand aside from such action. But siding with Moscow and Beijing at the UN had been beyond the pale.
The European coalition in the skies above Libya can scarcely be characterized as one of incurable warmongers. Belgium and Sweden have contributed warplanes. Neither nation is well known for a shoot-first foreign policy.
I heard competing explanations for Germany’s preference for the company of Russia and China. Some in Brussels blame Guido Westerwelle, the ineffectual but self-important leader of the junior party in Ms Merkel’s coalition.
Others speculate that Ms Merkel had been stranded on the wrong side of the argument by Washington’s abrupt change of heart in favor of military force; others still that she sees Mr. Sarkozy’s interventionist zeal as a cynical ploy to boost his domestic poll ratings. The German and French leaders, one should say, really do not like each other.
As it happens, if the chancellor thought her stand would curry favor with peaceniks at home she was mistaken. The nuclear disaster in Japan loomed larger in weekend regional elections. Ms Merkel’s ruling Christian Democrats slumped to a humiliating defeat at the hands of the Greens and Social Democrats.
The wider effect of all this has been to undermine, probably fatally, the EU’s hopes of emerging as a serious geopolitical actor. The bloc has its own foreign minister nowadays. It is building a fully-fledged diplomatic service. It is quite good at humanitarian missions. At the hard power end of the spectrum, however, national governments will continue to call all the shots. An EU-wide defense policy is an even more distant prospect. Alain Juppé, Mr. Sarkozy’s foreign minister, has acknowledged as much. France has long sought to draw Germany into European defense. Now Mr. Juppé’s open contempt for Mr. Westerwelle raises eyebrows among the most hardened Brussels hands.
What’s left is Franco-British defense cooperation. Both countries have half-decent armies and a history of global engagement. Last autumn Paris and London signed a formal defense treaty. It was an acknowledgement that while both want to retain the capacity for project force, they could not afford to go it alone. Neither Mr. Sarkozy nor Mr. Cameron, however, could have expected they would be at war together quite so soon.
Less clear is whether the new entente will survive the inevitable strains of the Libyan mission and lay the foundations for broader European co-operation. If the idea of EU-wide defense is dead, U.S. insistence that Europe must carry more of the security burden makes a compelling case for building upwards from the Anglo-French pact.
Charles Grant, the director of the London-based Centre for European Reform, suggests that Britain and France could form the core of a series of coalitions of the capable. Smaller nations such as Denmark and the Netherlands have shown a willingness to deploy military muscle. Spain, Poland and some others could be occasional members of such coalitions.
Given German pacifism, Mr. Grant is probably right that this is about as much as can be realistically achieved. A series of rotating coalitions, however, would not measure up to Europe’s pretensions to being taken seriously in its near abroad. Even now, the Libyan operation remains entirely dependent on the support of the U.S.
Things do not look much better post-summit in the other triangle. The eurozone is still in shaky shape. Berlin and Paris won endorsement for a blueprint to forestall a second crisis. They failed to confront the consequences of the first. Greece cannot pay its debts, and Ireland cannot on its own rescue its insolvent banking system. The vaults of German and French banks are stuffed with worthless assets.
Ms Merkel, Mr. Sarkozy and Mr. Cameron in their different ways are all hapless prisoners of domestic opinion. That is as it should be, some will say. But occasionally politics demands leadership that rises above the polls. My friends in Brussels tell me Europe will muddle through this; somehow, it always does. They are probably right. But what kind of Europe, I wonder.
(Source: The Financial Times