France in the New Europe

Ronald Tiersky. Foreign Affairs. Volume 71, Issue 2. Spring 1992.

In a divided Europe, built on a divided Germany, French overall influence was maximized. For France, the end of a divided Europe meant German ascension. The consequence for France is a rapid evaporation of its ability inside the European Community (EC) to be the political and diplomatic engineer of the German economic locomotive in pivotal Franco-German relations. With the probable expansion of the EC into a larger European union, centered geographically more in the east and north, the Franco-German relationship will be put under stress, if not completely thrown into question. The French dilemma in power terms is not zero-sum but that of finding the best, or the least bad, alternative. For geopolitical reasons, the strength of France alone was always in danger, even in a divided Europe. France in the new Europe may well continue to be “only” the 2nd-ranking power, but it will be relatively stronger and more prosperous than it would have been over the long term in the old Europe.

As early as January 1988, in view of the cracks in Eastern Europe, Kohl had proposed a joint Franco-German Ostpolitik to the French, Mitterrand held back, since the Germans would doubtless be the leading force and because a vigorous Franco-German Ostpolitik would cost the French excessively. As an alternative Mitterrand preferred to keep France’s freedom of maneuver, even for a second-level and mainly diplomatic presence, in Eastern Europe.

One result of this French attempt to play a significant diplomatic role—without the economic and political means to be convincing—was the disastrous Prague conference on the proposed European confederation. There Czechoslovak President Vaclav Navel and Mitterrand apparently quarrelled bitterly. Navel was furious at Mitterrand’s determined resistance to moving quickly to admit the former communist central European countries into Western institutions, especially NATO and the EC. Mitterrand instead offered the vague waiting room of his “confederation” idea, including a long association status (later Mitterrand spoke of “tens and tens of years”) before east European economies would meet EC standards. This was an approach reminiscent of Mitterrand’s go-slow recommendation on German unification, and may explain why many commentators, rightly according to the evidence, thought French policy was lagging during this period when others were forcing the pace.

Elsewhere in central and eastern Europe and in the former Soviet Union a similar policy could be found. There was French support for all of the prodemocracy revolutions of course, but there was also French concern about changes that would be destabilizing or simply too rapid.

In general Mitterrand’s foreign policy, though it has moved case by case, has supported the maintenance of existing states over secession movements. In the most important instance, that of policy vis-a-vis the crumbling Soviet Union, this meant support right up to the end for Gorbachev and the retention of some kind of “center” against the breakup of the U.S.S.R. led by Boris Yeltsin. During the attempted putsch of August, Mitterrand had even pushed his preference for continuity to the point of a huge diplomatic blunder—an uncharacteristic error of precipitous reaction, of appearing to assume right away that the long-dreaded coup against Gorbachev was successful. On television Mitterrand called the perpetrators “the new leaders” of the Soviet Union and read from a letter he had received from one of them, Gennadi Yaneyev, to the effect that reform would continue, as if to reassure French opinion that the worst had not happened and that France had a special diplomatic status (since the coup leaders were explaining themselves to the French leader). This was surely misjudgment masquerading as serenity.

In the Yugoslav civil war Mitterand’s policy was to prefer integrity of the Yugoslav federation and negotiation among the republics. This contrasted sharply with the German push for immediate recognition of self-declared Slovenian and Croatian independence. Some observers argued, plausibly but unconvincingly, that the operative factor was in some fuzzy historical sense the traditional French bias toward “Centralism.” Another argument was that French policy was dictated by an old Quai d’Orsay preference for Serbia and anti-German coalition maneuvering, dating from World Wars I and II.

French policy was not this kind of woolly anachronism, but rather a calculation that in the long run the principle of national self-determination must be given limits before it becomes self-destructive. It did not make sense, in terms of peace and development, to encourage the emergence of a whole host of economically unviable, politically and militarily threatened states. It is a strategy of geopolitical prudence to limit civil wars and prop up stability inside the east Eurpoean powder keg. The French approach might be mistaken, but rather than nostalgic it is at least forward-looking to the new dangers of the post-Cold War era.

Immediately after Maastricht in December 1991, however, two events suddenly signaled a new German assertiveness, the one a monetary decision, the other a German alleingang on the Yugoslav imbroglio.

First, the Bundesbank abruptly raised German interest rates to their highest level in 30 years. The German central bank, by law independent from the government influence, acted for domestic economic reasons (German inflation, at 4-5 percent, was double the French rate at the time, reflecting both higher than expected costs of unification and union wage demands), but of course all partners in the European Monetary System (EMS) were immediately and sharply affected. The “Deutsche mark zone”—including governments inside and outside the system’s “snake” of currency ranges—followed the German interest-rate lead immediately. The Bank of France also raised interest rates, reluctantly, following the German initiative for the second time in a few months; whereas French policy for a year had been to break free of the need to emulate Bundesbank policy—to create, through low inflation, a “strong franc” no longer a deutsche-mark zone currency.

The French and other governments were critical of the Bundesbank’s nationalist unilateralism, while defenders of the German measure argued that outsiders failed to appreciate how dangerous German inflation had become. In any case those EC governments that planned to relax monetary and fiscal policy to pull their respective economies out of recession were put under unwelcome pressure by the unilateral German decision and then whipsawed between the German move upward and the Federal Reserve’s lowering of the U.S. discount rate to 3.5 percent, the lowest level in decades.

Second, Chancellor Kohl, concerned about looking weak at home, decided his government could now—after Maastricht—afford to take a strong, even if unpopular, lead to do something to stop the bloody fighting in Yugoslavia. Foreign Minister Genscher, in a divisive EC Council of Foreign Ministers debate, forced diplomatic recognition of Croatia and Slovenia on several recalcitrant EC allies, among them France, and in the process rebuffed American and U.N. preferences for a prior ceasefire and, if necessary, deployment of peacekeeping force. The strong-arm tactics of German diplomacy, threatening its EC partners with a go-it-alone decision, amounted to an unprecedented postwar German policy sortie. Then Germany shortcircuited the Council of Ministers’ compromise resolution (which had a January 15 deadline for recognition if the EC’s conditions had been met) in order to announce recognition by Christmas, as Chancellor Kohl had earlier provised the Croats and Slovenes. Germany thus stood by its initial position that the EC had not been very effective and that recognition would pressure the Serbs, perhaps stopping the killing earlier. The German diplomatic fig leaf was to separate recognition from its actual implementation, which was put off to the agreed January 15 date. No one was fooled, but reactions were mixed, with many observers, including some Americans who had been critical of Germany in the past, commending Germany’s decisiveness and new leadership role. Der Spiegel, the leading German newsweekly, pointed out: “It was the first time since 1949 that Bonn has taken a unilateral action in foreign policy.”

Did this mean that a “Fourth Reich” was in the making? Not likely, if one is talking literally about some sort of authoritarian-minded German zone in Europe, run from Berlin with an accumulation of suspicious, damaging ambitions, But if one means a Germany with time working in its favor and that is growing stronger, then, as a high German official sympathetic to foreign worries told me, “the Fourth Reich is coming unless others, first of all France and the United States, do something about it.” The righteously, in his 1990 Bastille Day interview on French television:

I would like to tell you what my plan, my grand project, is. It is to turn the whole of Europe into one space, … a single and vast market and, at the same time, constant and structural links established among all the European countries. This is why I have talked about a confederation…. I would like the Community of the 12 to strive for its own economic, monetary and political entity…. I would like to see a strong nucleus capable of making political decisions collectively. This is the Community. Within the Community and Europe, I would like to see France we are working at it, and it is not easy become a model of economic development and social cohesion. That is my plan.

This is genuine Mitterrand, a long-term view—vague yet plausible—of the concentric circles of French policy for Europe: the Community within the confederation and, though not mentioned specifically, the Franco-German axis at the center.

The problem is that this conception remains the French frame of reference even though conditions have meantime changed radically in Europe—even though it is clear to everyone, including the French, that new EC members are likely to emerge fairly quickly. The Germans, by contrast, without wanting to damage close relations with their French partners, are already reasoning in terms of a larger community.

Was Maastricht a success for French policy? Like every government, the French won their specific rounds, including even a few against the Germans. France led the fight against extensive powers for the European parliament and against awarding the unified Germans 18 new parliamentary seats. The Germans made concessions to everyone and, though it may not have “won” any single big point at Maastricht, Germany emerged strengthened overall in that German unification was legitimized and Germany’s new strength was cloaked in integration.

The two central Maastricht advances for the French were the agreement on monetary union and the beginnings of a European security and defense policy. Both involved remarkable French and German concessions on national sovereignty. By accepting a single European currency, by 1999 at the latest, Germany sacrificed the deutsche mark on the altar of Europeanism. In agreeing with the Germans prior to Maastricht to an integrated military command for a French-German military entity pledged to the Western European Union (WEU), France’s Gaullist obsession with maintaining a strictly national defense was also sacrificed. At Maastricht the reference to an eventual European military force seemed to concern conventional defense only. But in January President Mitterrand volunteered, in an obviously premeditated declaration, that France’s nuclear force itself would inevitably become part of the debate about a European defense. The trade amounted to German abandonment of monetary sovereignty for French abandonment of military sovereignty. This Franco-German understanding was the keystone of the entire Maastricht accord, a vision of full political union to complete a vision of full economic and monetary union.

France’s primary gain was EC commitment to monetary union. Paris achieved two historically stunning goals: adoption of a single European currency and creation of a European central bank. The European Currency Unit is to replace national currencies sometime between 1997 and 1999, while the EuroFed will take form within a transition structure, a so-called European Monetary Institute, during the second phase of monetary union beginning in 1994.

Paradoxically, the French want monetary union as their chance to regain some control over their own monetary policy. In the European Monetary System, in place since 1979, French interest rates have been obliged by financial markets to follow Bundesbank decisions on German rates. With a single currency, however, the French will have a voice in “pooled sovereignty” EuroFed decisions on interest rates, reached by an international board of directors. The French wanted this so much that in the final Maastricht negotiation President Mitterrand himself proposed a mechanism to make the launching of a single currency automatic in 1999 if it is not decided in 1997. Apart from an unlikely British opt-out, the number of countries to join will depend on their meeting a certain number of so-called convergence criteria (low inflation rates, interest rates, budget-deficit and public-debt levels). At the present moment, with Germany suffering the burdens of unification, France would meet the criteria but Germany would not!

The French also scored points in the adoption of a modest beginning of social policy legislation, including Coinmunitywide labor laws. A controversial British veto on putting this in the EMU treaty, however, forced the other 11 governments to make a special outside agreement on social policy. The French argument, ideologically inspired by social democracy but also by recognition that labor must benefit from integration, was that economic and political union should not go forward without providing a “social,” or worker-oriented dimension to “Europe. ” At Maastricht the decision was made to adopt a joint foreign and security policy, beyond the informal European political cooperation forum that has existed for years. But, mainly at British insistence, the move from unanimity to qualified majority voting—which would be the key to a pooling of sovereignty in foreign and security policy—was limited to implementation. Another proviso was added on specifying that the council must decide by unanimous vote which foreign policy actions should be decided by majority vote.

On defense the Maastricht summit followed up agreements of the important November 1991 NATO summit. There the Bush administration finally agreed, after some rigorous debate, that it would not object to elevating the nine-nation WEU to a formal connection with the European Community, meaning that such a move would not be taken as anti-NATO. The British, who had earlier echoed American concerns about the WEU’s becoming a European caucus within NATO, now signed on to the principle of an eventual European defense.

Yet the commitment to have a common defense policy, with EC decisions executed by the WEU, does not yet provide for a European military force. France and Germany, on the other hand, have been cooperating for several years (with ups and downs) to produce a Franco-German military force, and as early as 1988 Chancellor Kohl himself endorsed the idea of an eventual “European army.” An initial 5,000-man binational brigade has struggled for several years to workout its numerous problems, even though the mixing of nationalities there occurs at the lowest levels, that is, at those easiest to work out. Overall, multinational fighting forces seem likely to be political crowd-pleasers more than effective fighting units, whereas an integrated WEU command and standardization policies (in coordination with NATO) would be of clear military efficiency.

Just prior to Maastricht in another Franco-German joint initiative, Mitterrand and Kohl announced that the brigade would be expanded to a corps-sized element, open as the Maastricht treaty specifies to any WEU member. If the corps is ultimately attached, as planned, to the WEU as its military force, French troops would be permanently placed for the first time under an integrated, nonnational command. Thus the postGaullist French are willing to do for a European force what they refuse to do for NATO. Or, to put it another way, the French have signaled their willingness to pool military sovereignty with a European force, as part of a larger pooling of aspects of sovereignty in the European Union.

In any case there is little necessary contradiction between NATO and the EC-WEU, or at least little need to choose for at least several years, and no European government, the French very much included, wants to see the U.S. military presence removed. Defense Minister Pierre Joxe has even announced that the French, without rejoining NATO’s integrated command.