Not Rocket Science: How to Straighten Europe’s Fractured Spine

Europe – Germany included – still has use for France’s strategic forethought. European Space Agency’s new rocket Vega ready for its maiden flight in February this year. Lifting off from Europe’s Spaceport in French Guiana, VV01 smoothly brought a total of 9 satellites into orbit: the LARES laser relativity satellite & ALMASat-1 from ASI, plus 7 CubeSats from European Universities. With Vega, Europe (in fact French-controlled operator Arianespace) commands the necessary full spectrum of space launchers: small (Italian-built Vega); medium (Soyuz 2, partnering with Russia); heavy (Ariane 5, latest outgrowth of 4 decades of French Ariane rocket development). (Photo credit S Corvaja/ESA.)

The spinal column of post-war Europe is an alliance of interests between its 2 principal former enemies, France & Germany. Yet this seemingly indestructible bond, older than the European Union (EU) or its precursors, is now under tension. Not so much for what’s out in the open – the relations between the two powers have under the circumstances remained tolerable – as for a deeper, more implicit, & therefore far more ominous structural wound.

Following the EU financial crisis, a philosophical abyss has opened between the French & German approaches to Europe. France still wants to unite Europe in its well-worn way: mutualizing all things national (not least financial commitments & obligations) & surrendering sovereignty to higher transnational institutions. Germany has long embraced this. But now its citizens are exhausted, even repelled, by the financial side of the process. That a “Europeanization” of debt has mounting & exorbitant costs for them is one thing. Far more intolerable is that it threatens to sideline or negate financial responsibility, shielding & featherbedding precisely those who, in the German view, most need to be kept accountable.

Sure, Germany is still dutifully salvaging Europe, at ever more baffling expense. But its manifest discomfort makes this oddity an even louder alarm bell. Certainly not something to be taken for granted, as token of a sighing, reluctant, but irreversible commitment. Recent German negotiation tactics are almost a case study in smoke screens & advanced stalling maneuvers, cannily improvised to exorcise at all costs the supreme poltergeist: debt mutualization. All while even Germany’s most mainstream & Europhile media or technocrats have gone from uncomfortable to outright hostile & aggressive. Germany is emphatically not moving closer to European integration right now, certainly not in financial matters. It may even be brewing a rebellion.

So a risk is appearing, still small but perfectly real, of a painful & lasting fracture between this newly emboldened German perspective (financial accountability at any cost), & the familiar French approach, (political integration at almost any cost). Or to put the hypothesis more broadly: between a Northern Europe now clearly inclining, with ever fewer inhibitions, toward the German way of looking at things, & a France siding, less perhaps by inclination than by necessity, with Southern Europe.

Can the present fracture be healed before things get uglier? Yes. Moreover, little of it is rocket science, as that terrible phrase goes.

Put very squarely, European politics, not least the Franco-German understanding, used to be made of A & B. “A” was French high politics: Europe’s united voice in the world, the grand lines of supranational integration, foreign & security policy, vast pan-European programmes… “B” was an economic & financial policy never just German, but Franco-German. Even the flagship products of this policy – the Euro & European Central Bank – were not faithful clones of the D-Mark & Bundesbank, but hybrids diluted by political necessity – yet tolerable at the time to Germans because their worst-case scenario had not yet come true, & of course because they came conveniently “bundled” with German Reunification.

In other words France has, for decades, been getting both parts of the deal: full political dominance, plus a 50-50 sharing of power in the economic-financial domain.

All we need to repair the fracture is a clean, authentic, sincere separation of powers – not Montesquieu’s thematically & judicially ordered classic, but something which – still within a transnational EU framework – could approximate as closely as possible a separation of powers based on key national competencies. I call this beast a disentanglement of powers.

As outlandish as this sounds to other Europeans, the French are still remarkable at setting a strategic agenda for all of us. Take that darling of mine, the European space programme. Without French stubbornness in pushing the – originally not so promising – Ariane rocket launcher programme right up to modern day’s complete & world-class suite of launchers, Europe would today be stuck with piggybacking every single spaceship ride on the US, Russia, India – or far worse. The endless strategic ramifications are hard to overstate. A briefer episode, the 2011 NATO intervention in Libya, showed how even emergencies may – given adequate political leadership – be addressed by France with executive capacity, military resources, & the political legitimacy which Germany still famously lacks. Better than any other European power France may be trusted with the highest functions of political leadership – though mainly with precisely that. Conversely, the Germans remain superlative in the character & consistency of their monetary, financial, & economic policy. Their expert human resource base alone is, in this domain, now unequaled anywhere in the world. They too must be trusted, to apply & enforce their proven philosophy.

Incidentally another ancient European power, Britain, also has a part to act in this disentanglement: the same it has always played. Whether within or on the side from the EU, it will move to remain a privileged arbiter of continental politics, rewarding all according to merit or its own interests – which rightly perceived are still not so different from all Europe’s. While Germany stayed anachronistically passive in the Libyan war, Britain rapidly & actively supported French initiative. Yet it also supports – despite a few unconvincing protestations to the contrary – a proto-German policy of economic accountability. So here we have the quintessential Franco-German arbiter: A) Always wary, in theory & rhetoric, of grand schemes & European centralization, yet quite willing to play the superpower when interest demands it. B) Vocally preoccupied by the Euro mess, but not unwilling to give Germany a sympathetic break. I doubt this role would change much, should Britain really exit its formal EU commitment (simply because Germany will still play at courting Britain bilaterally each time they feel need to pressure France).

Other EU-nations could live with this setup. At best it may give Europe new confidence, resources, & direction to deal creatively with crises in the South or elsewhere. At worst it will safeguard financial accountability. It soothes Eurozone grumblers like Finland or the Netherlands, as well as befuddled non Eurozone observers such as Sweden or Denmark. Other less embroiled partners – most Central & East European nations – should find little to object formally, & much to approve of in practice, in so refreshing a disentanglement of their embarrassed allies.

Let the dust settle a little over current troubles & soon this model, or something close enough, is what Europe’s new equilibrium of power will look like.

Disentanglement, now.

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Mayer, Thomas. Europe’s Unfinished Currency: The Political Economics of the Euro. London: Anthem, 2012. ISBN 978-0857285485. A consistent reform proposal, attempting to rescue key pieces of European monetary integration. Not a bad sample of recent German technocratic thought.

Monnet, Jean. Mémoires. Paris: Le Livre de Poche, 2007 (1976). ISBN 978-2253121855. (Translated by Richard Mayne as Memoirs. London, Collins, 1978. ISBN 978-0002165174.) Still the canonic manual on the French-German alliance for Europe.

Montesquieu, Charles-Louis baron de. De l’esprit des lois. 2 vols. Paris: Garnier-Flammarion, 1993 (1748). ISBN 978-2080703255. (Translated by Anne M Cohler et al as The Spirit of the Laws. Cambridge, Cambridge UP, 1989. ISBN 978-0521369749.) The even more venerable separation of powers manual.

Tooze, Adam. The Wages of Destruction: The Making & Breaking of the Nazi Economy. London: Penguin, 2007. ISBN 978-0141003481. This scholarly landmark charts Germany’s darkest economic history. Invaluable for observers of modern policy.



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