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Friday, May 28, 2010


The Franco-German axis, which for so long has defined the European Union, has taken some serious hits lately. Following the trauma of the eurozone crisis, the relationship between the two countries is heading towards a historic post-war low - to the point that Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy are no longer on speaking terms according to whispers in Brussels. This wasn't helped by Sarkozy's comments the other week that "95 percent" of the bailout package deal agreed corresponded to French demands.

Today Wirtschaftswoche takes an interesting look at the strains, quoting one "experienced" CDU source saying that "In this government one can talk anti-French without being punished...that wasn't the case at the time of [Chancellor] Kohl".

Quite extrordinarily, the article also suggests that relations between Sarkozy and Merkel are at such a low ebb that "Merkel likes to imitate the vain behaviour of the little Frenchman, thereby making friends in her party laugh during the late hours." Harsh!

Apart from the huge implications for the future of the EU, Merkel's more assertive stance - and the power vacuum left by the radical weakening of the Franco-German axis - is also proving very confusing for journalists. Particularly anglo-saxon ones. In today's FT, Philip Stephens is so perplexed by this new order that he desperately searches for some sort of familiar point of reference and finds....Margaret Thatcher! Stephens argues:

"Mrs Thatcher spoke the language of the small shopkeeper from her native Lincolnshire. Ms Merkel, as determined as was Britain’s Iron Lady that Germany should no longer pick up Europe’s bills, has her own exemplar of the virtues of provincial thrift."

He also seems very pleased with his phrase "anti-European invective", using it twice to describe what he sees as the mood in the UK and Germany - without engaging with any of the actual arguments about the sustainability of the current model for European integration. Stephens is obviously struggling to get with the programme. If Merkel sounds like Thatcher, what exactly is that a sign of? German taxpayers are potentially liable for some €120 billion in eurozone loans and have just seen the independence of the ECB kissed goodbye - after having been promised that neither could ever happen. Whining over the fact that the Germans are not acting like this is 'business as usual' just isn't serious.

In Stephens' eyes the whole world is turning 'anti-European', apart from Sarkozy and a freemasonry of like-minded Eurocrats in Brussels (to steal a phrase from a thought-provoking piece by Simon Jenkins the other day). His views sound almost...provincial.

A leader in today's IHT is also struggling to come to terms with the changing nature of Europe:

"Now, at the worst possible moment, Germany is turning to nationalist illusions. Europe’s past economic successes are now viewed as German successes. Europe’s current deep problems are everyone else’s except Germany’s. That is neither realistic nor sustainable. But German politicians and commentators are callously and self-destructively feeding these ideas."

Some journalists should really get out more and see some ordinary people outside of the political bubbles in a few selected capitals. A more sensible take on the situation can be found in the Economist's Charlemagne column today:

"Anger and denial are hardly surprising. Germans were promised that the single currency would be the old Deutschmark in new clothes, backed by Teutonic discipline and a fiercely independent central bank. Arguably, that fantasy Deutschmark died early on May 10th, when a euro-zone bail-out mechanism was agreed and the European Central Bank started buying government bonds by the bucket load. Germans are now in mourning. How they recover is not just their problem, but Europe's".

In any case, the broken Franco-German engine certainly opens up the playing field for new alliances in Europe - and a new, more sustainable and healthy European agenda. Is the UK's Con-Lib coalition government ready to go to work?

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