The Franco-German Alliance That's Splitting the EU

The U.S. reaction was swift. When President Jacques Chirac and Chancellor Gerhard Schröder announced on Jan. 22 their united opposition to a possible American-led war with Iraq, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld declared just hours later that "Germany has been a problem, and France has been a problem." Rumsfeld even dismissed the two longtime allies as "old Europe."

Since that stinging rebuke, diplomats the world over have been talking about the widening rift between Washington and Continental Europe's biggest powers. It could take a long time for the scars to heal, even if--as some U.S. officials think likely--Paris ultimately joins in an anti-Iraq coalition. Less noticed, however, is the potentially longer-lasting damage that the Franco-German alliance is inflicting on Europe. Plenty of governments are uneasy about the Franco-German defiance of the U.S. Moreover, recent deals between Paris and Berlin on key issues, from European Union institutions to defense, threaten to split the Continent and paralyze the EU's already glacial decision-making.

Britain, Spain, Italy, and other EU nations are angered by moves they view as heavy-handed. The fear is that Paris and Berlin want to set the clock back more than 20 years, to a time when the two countries did indeed make policy for the entire Continent. In today's vastly expanded Europe, smaller members argue, the French and Germans can no longer set the rules. That will be even harder with the entry of 10 new states into the fold in 2004. That's why EU members such as Spain will likely fight to shoot down the Franco-German proposals. "There's a real concern that the game has changed dramatically," says Rafael L. Badarji, deputy director of Madrid's Elcano Royal Institute for International & Strategic Studies. "Can Berlin and Paris be the only ones speaking for Europe?"

In fact, the desire by Chirac and Schröder to carve out a united EU foreign policy is having the opposite effect. Schröder's anti-American rhetoric during his reelection campaign had already sparked concern in Europe. Then, the Franco-German position on Iraq was declared "without the least prior consultation with us or any other European partners," complains a top aide to Italy's Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. "This is a weakening of the whole process of consensus building in the EU."

Europeans left out in the cold by the Franco-German alliance are rushing to reinforce their ties with Washington. Berlusconi, a staunch U.S. supporter, is heading for talks in Washington on Jan. 30, to be followed by Britain's Tony Blair. Formerly communist Poland, invited to join the EU in 2004, is also backing Washington. "We're far closer to the Americans on [Iraq] than to the Germans and French," says former Defense Minister Janusz Onyszkiewicz, now with Warsaw's Center for International Relations. "If you start taking a head count," says a Bush Administration official, "Europe is not against us."

How the split within the EU plays out depends not only on Iraq but also on economic issues. Scandinavia, Britain, Ireland, and Spain are now outpacing France and Germany in growth and structural reforms. These countries are vexed by the ballooning budget deficits of France and Germany and their resistance to market-opening measures. The faster-growing economies "increasingly think there is one set of rules for the big two and another set for the rest," says the London-based head of one investment bank. That suggests a political showdown is looming, even as the Continent waits to see what the U.S. does about Iraq.

By John Rossant in Paris, with Stan Crock in Washington

Edited by Rose Brady

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