Spitzenlanden: European Union, Alliance or Empire?

Republished piece by
Prof. Dr. Julian Lindley-French from his Blog Blast Series

Alphen, Netherlands. 10 July. Last week’s Franco-German coup effectively ended hopes of a real European political union, and set Europe back on the road to a European alliance of states, with a touch of empire thrown in. Having followed much of the commentary over the past week I am surprised how few have realised the enormity of what has just happened.

A mediocre German defence minister is suddenly parachuted into the post of European Commission President. A member of the French Establishment, and current Head of the International Monetary Fund, is summarily made Head of the European Central Bank. A placeman, lame duck Belgian Prime Minister, the second Belgian out of three, is appointed President of the European Council, whilst a septuagenarian placeman Spanish foreign minister is confirmed as the next High Representative of the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy. Last week’s imposition by Germany and France of Ursula von der Leyen, Christine Lagarde, Charles Michel,  and Josep Borrell certainly came as a surprise to most Members of the European Parliament.  As an exercise in closed-door Euro-elitism/power-play it is straight from the annals of Richelieu and Bismarck. It was not meant to be like this. What happened and what are the implications for the future of the EU?

What happened? French and German power ‘happened’. There are few things that unite the very disparate ranks of the European Parliament and current Commission President Jean Claude Juncker, but last week’s Franco-German coup did.  The European Parliament had believed that a precedent had been set with the appointment of Juncker.  He had been the ‘spitzenkandidat’, chosen, and thus legitimised, by the largest political grouping in the European Parliament, the EPP.  European federalists had hoped that such a process would deepen political integration by enabling the European Parliament to ensure appointments to the Commission, and the other great offices of the European would-be ‘state’, would be in its gift. Some have suggested the appointments came about because the EU 27 could not agree on other candidates. This is not the case. Berlin and Paris simply moved to decisively re-exert their control by exploiting the divisions between the member-states.

What are the implications? Last week was certainly a big step back from European Union. Whilst there have been ‘big’ country Commission presidents in the past, Roy Jenkins and Jacques Delors, come to mind, the political balance within the EU has tended to be best served by having those from the smaller states as the respective heads of the European Council and European Commission.  It was assumed that such a ‘balance’ would be maintained, which is why the Dutch Socialist and Commission Vice-President, Frans Timmermans and the Swedish Commissioner, Cecilia Malmstrom, were touted so strongly for the Commission job.  Now, that political balance has been effectively demolished by Berlin and Paris, with a German taking control of ‘power’ within the EU, whilst a Frenchwoman has been put in charge of the money.

Here was Europe’s two power-states, Germany and France (in that order), effectively taking back control  – spitzenklanden? It is not difficult to see why. Efforts to ‘democratise’ power in the EU have left it rudderless and leaderless, adrift in a sea of dangerous change.  Critically, little has really been done of note to solve the underlying structural weaknesses of the Euro, or to prepare for a more secure Europe. Berlin and Paris clearly agree it is time for some leadership to be injected into political and economic union, albeit by stepping back from political and economic union.

Do Germany and France share a vision for the future European Union? No. President Macron appears to want to move faster towards banking and fiscal union than Germany, and wants Germans to pay for the debt mutualisation such integration would entail. Conversely, Germany wants to move towards some form of European Defence Union, with ‘VDL’ an enthusiastic champion, whilst France wants to keep defence a strictly intergovernmental business, not least to maintain links with the British.

Could Britain have stopped the coup if it had not been consumed by the disaster that is Not Brexit?  Probably not. With a few notable exceptions Germany and France have traditionally sought reasons to block the appointment of a Briton to the EU’s two senior positions – the twin presidencies of the Council and the Commission.  The reason offered has usually been that Britain is not ‘European’ enough. It is certainly not ‘European’ enough now.

There is a profound Brexit irony in these Franco-German shenanigans.  The Franco-German coup shifts the EU back to being precisely the kind of super-alliance between states London long championed, and decisively away from the European super-state that London so feared.  In a sense, the coup simply re-confirms the essential paradox at the heart of the European project: more ‘Europe’ means less European state, but few, if any, European states want less of themselves. It is also clear that neither Germany nor France are really willing to countenance any decisive loss of national sovereignty in the name of ‘Europe’, preferring instead to control ‘Europe’ in pursuit of their respective, vital national interests.

In other words, when power-push comes to power-shove the Franco-German idea of ‘Europe’, is not that far from the traditional British idea of ‘Europe’. For Germany, ‘Europe’ remains a legitimate institution in which to embed German power, so long as Germany effectively controls it. France, ‘Europe’ still simply a mechanism for a bigger France. Plus ca change…

European Union, Alliance or Empire?

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