Is it Europe's most important romance? Over the past year, French President Jacques Chirac and German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder have been getting cozier and cozier. First, they aligned German and French policies on Iraq. Then they joined forces on issues such as agricultural subsidies, Europe's Constitution, and economic policies.
Now, guess what: There's even talk of "marriage." In Paris and Berlin, an official name has been coined for this proposed binational linkup: The Franco-German Union. French and German policymakers are debating a wide range of measures to make the alliance much deeper, including common French-German citizenship and melding the two nations' armed forces and educational systems. A union between the two great states of continental Europe is "the one historic bet we cannot lose," French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin said in mid-November, making sure the remark was widely reported in the media.
The relationship didn't seem so starry-eyed a little over a year ago. Schröder was desperately fighting to win reelection in late 2002, and Chirac made little effort to hide his preference for Schröder's Bavarian archrival, conservative candidate Edmund Stoiber. When Schröder pulled off a surprising victory, it looked as if relations between the German center-left and the French center-right would enter the deep freeze.
But within one month, the two hashed out an agreement on capping agricultural subsidies by 2013, a move that opened stalled negotiations to expand the European Union to the east. By early '03, Chirac and Schröder had joined forces to oppose a U.S. attack on Iraq. In April, France and Germany announced plans to set up a European military headquarters independent of NATO. And on Oct. 17, Schröder even let Chirac represent Germany at a key European Summit.
A merger of France and Germany? It's not as outlandish an idea as it might appear for two countries that fought three all-out wars against each other over the past 135 years. From the 1950s until the 1990s, the EU cruised along on a Franco-German motor, with Paris and Bonn calling the shots. Today, with the EU expanding eastward, many French and German policymakers are uneasy over the potential dispersion of authority in a grand Europe of 25 members. Both Chirac and Schröder worry that EU decision-making is being paralyzed by haggling over questions such as voting rights and the makeup of the European Commission in Brussels.
But talk of Franco-German wedding bells could actually drive Europe apart instead of bringing it together. The unilateral moves of France and Germany to counter the Americans on Iraq are still viewed by a majority of European countries as having unnecessarily split the Atlantic Alliance. And French and German credibility in economic policy has been severely weakened by the two countries' inability to control public spending. "France and Germany are seen as defending their own tiny interests," says Anne-Marie Le Gloannec, a specialist in French-German relations at the Centre d'Études et de Recherches Internationales in Paris.
The big bet Chirac and Schröder are making is that other countries will soon want to join them. They believe Spain and Italy could swing around to supporting them by next year -- a move that would pressure Britain and the new candidate countries to be more accommodating of Berlin and Paris on key issues. Yet the likely victor in Spanish elections next March, Mariano Rajoy, could prove as stubbornly pro-NATO as incumbent José María Aznar. And odds are good that Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who staunchly supports the U.S. action in Iraq, could stay in office until at least 2006.
German and French citizens certainly seem to favor closer ties. According to an early November poll by Mannheim-based Ipos, 56% of Germans believe that France is now their most important ally, against only 28% for the U.S. As recently as 1996, 64% still considered America the most important ally. But in attempting to speed up European unity by striking out on their own, Chirac and Schröder are "playing with fire," says Ulrike Guerot, Europe specialist at Berlin's DGAP foreign policy institute. That's hardly an ideal start to a marriage.
By John Rossant