Germany's presidency: an odd couple

Frank Vibert
24 October 2006

The German presidency of the European Union in the first half of 2007 is already, two months before Finland passes on the baton, being anticipated with a heightened sense of expectation. Part of the reason is historical. The federal republic was a founding member and signatory of the post-1945 European project since its first manifestations in the Coal and Steel Community (1951) and the Treaty of Rome (1957), and has given essential inspiration and impetus to what became the European Union at all the crucial moments in its history. The single currency too would not now be in existence without Germany's backing.

Another part of this expectation is built around the reputation of German's chancellor, Angela Merkel. In her first year in office, she has mended bridges with the United States after the sourness of the Gerhard Schröder-Joschka Fischer years. She has also passed her first major test as European leader with flying colours when she was seen to play a vital role in brokering an agreement in December 2005 on the financial framework under which Europe's financial programmes will operate until 2013. Perhaps, therefore, she can work a similar magic in brokering agreement on the union's current set of political and constitutional challenges?

The European Union is indeed now seen to be in need of a new impetus. The hope of many is that Angela Merkel can provide that impetus. Importantly, the coalition she leads looks stable and her own position as chancellor - press criticism, and sniping from her predecessor Schröder's memoirs aside - seems secure. She has her critics from within her own party but has been consistently underestimated by them.

Yet there remains a snag. Earlier German leaders had partners in providing impetus to Europe. Konrad Adenauer had Charles de Gaulle, Helmut Kohl had Francois Mitterrand. By themselves they could not have achieved their historical breakthroughs. Angela Merkel, however, has a problem. She has no obvious partner. Here comes the bride; but where is the groom?

Frank Vibert is director of the European Policy Forum. He is the author of Europe Simple, Europe Strong: The Future of European Governance (Polity, 2001). His next book is The Rise of the Unelected: Democracy and the New Separation of Powers (Cambridge University Press, spring 2007)

Among Frank Vibert's articles on openDemocracy:

"The future of Europe – simplify, simplify" (December 2001)

"The new cosmopolitanism" (March 2003)

"French referendum lessons" (May 2005)

"Absorption capacity': the wrong European debate" (21 June 2006)

The missing link

History suggests that Merkel should look for a partnership with the French. Unfortunately the timing does not quite work. The new French president will not be elected until May 2007, by which time the German presidency of the union will be almost over. Optimists nevertheless still hope that the German presidency could give a decisive start to a reform process, laying foundations for agreements that need to be reached under the French presidency in 2008.

The anchor of this renewed Franco-German partnership would be the idea of a "mini-treaty" to replace the constitutional treaty whose progress was halted by the French and Dutch referendum "no" of May-June 2005. The idea has been put forward by Nicolas Sarkozy, France's interior minister and likely centre-right candidate for the French presidency.

The treaty would inherit some of the elements of the constitutional treaty, such as an EU foreign minister and a stable presidency of the European Council. It would also contain some additional elements, such as different budget financing techniques and greater possibilities for what the French term cooperation renforcé (where a group of member-states can pioneer new areas of policy cooperation without waiting for the others). Chancellor Merkel is believed to be sympathetic to this general approach, even if not to each of its components.

One flaw in this scenario is that Nicolas Sarkozy may not after all emerge as the victor in the French elections, and it is much less clear whether any of his likely socialist opponents - Ségolène Royal, Laurent Fabius, Dominique Strauss-Kahn or another contender - would wish to make a mini-treaty the centrepiece of his or her European policy.

Sarkozy and his supporters have made no secret of the fact that they are looking for a treaty formula that could avoid a referendum and be ratified simply by parliaments. The French left, in light of its bruising internal divisions over the constitutional treaty and its pivotal role in securing the "no" vote, will be wary about showing such a blatant contempt for the electorate. Ségolène Royal has emphasised less institutional change in Europe and more the need for changes in European policies in order to protect labour standards and to revise the rules of the fiscal stability pact. Neither is likely to appeal to a Germany led by Angela Merkel.

Yet if Merkel cannot forge a partnership with the new French president, who can Angela Merkel turn to? In Italy, Romani Prodi - if he survives long the political turbulence that has hit his unwieldy coalition government after only six months in office - is likely to be preoccupied with keeping his government on the road and maintaining its programme of domestic reforms. In any case, he was seen as a weak president of the European Commission and would be seen as an unlikely source of European leadership now. Jose Luís Rodríguez Zapatero in Spain is from a different part of the political spectrum and would be unlikely to carry sufficient weight in European politics to provide a ready partner for Merkel.

Enter stage left...

In these circumstances Angela Merkel might well cast a look west, in the direction of Britain - and in particular to Gordon Brown, the government's chief economics minister and candidate most favoured to succeed Tony Blair when (as promised) the prime minister steps down by May 2007.

There are two improbabilities about a Merkel-Brown alliance. First, the political timetable for Blair's departure may - unless it can be altered - delay Gordon Brown's succession until near the end of the German presidency. Second, even if Brown became prime minister in good time his record to date as almost a Eurosceptic in debates on European structural economic reform and budget financing make him appear an unlikely partner for Merkel.

In order to win the next British election (probably in 2009) Brown would need to play to the centre-ground and not provide David Cameron's Conservatives with any ready-made instrument with which to mobilise Eurosceptic fervour. In his speech to the 2006 Labour Party conference, reference to Europe was notable by its absence.

Yet there is another side to this coin. Brown and Merkel share a common commitment to the "better regulation" agenda in Europe, a common admiration for the dynamism of the United States, and a common interest in the broader transatlantic partnership. As prime minister, Brown would want to show that he is a leader beyond the world of finance which has occupied him in government for more than nine years - and Europe would provide him with a larger stage on which to prove his skills.

Nor is Europe necessarily an electoral negative. By showing that he can forge a good working relationship with other European leaders, Gordon Brown could suggest that the British Conservatives remain ideologically unreconstructed and unable to work effectively with European partners, while he can be pragmatic in defending and promoting Britain's interests.

...to lowering expectations

But before these hurdles can be overcome and Angela Merkel and Gordon Brown march up the aisle and tie the knot as European partners, a quite different scenario might arise - one that simply calls for a lowering of the expectations that are gathering around the German presidency.

This scenario proceeds from the belief that it is delusory to expect a quick fix can be made around the failed constitutional treaty. A mini-treaty that makes minor changes is probably not worth risking political capital on. Major changes will be controversial and difficult to navigate past public opinion. Europe needs longer to reflect on basic problems to do with the lack of legitimacy and accountability of the union's structures, and in the meantime the existing treaty base is working.

On this view, Ségolène Royal is right to warn that while institutional debates are endlessly fascinating for Brussels, voters in member-states are more concerned about policies that affect their everyday well-being. In his own domestic agenda for France, Nicolas Sarkozy has promised a decisive break (la rupture) with the past, but his proposals for the mini-treaty represent old thinking and not the new that is required.

Nor would the German presidency be well advised to take up divisive issues such as the "final frontiers" or the "geographic limits" of the union, as Sarkozy suggests. In Eurospeak these phrases have become coded references to one country alone - Turkey. The accession negotiations with Turkey will be long and hard, and it would be unwise to try to short-circuit them or to pre-empt where they will lead.

Neither are there quick fixes to be made on the policy front. Some, like Sarkozy, are pushing for policy initiatives, for example in the areas of energy policy or immigration or security, but in each area there are substantive differences between the member-states that will not be easily overcome. In the energy sector, Gordon Brown might want to see the union enforce a vigorous pro-competition policy that challenges national incumbents and splits production from distribution. That is not at all the agenda wanted by France's leaders of any political complexion. Meanwhile, Germany pursues its own bilateral energy policy with Russia.

What is left for the German presidency is the considerable progress that the European Union still needs to make on improving the quality of the regulation and legislation that comes out of Brussels. There are currently 14,500 binding legislative acts in force within the EU. Few have been evaluated to see whether they have achieved the effects intended and many could be dispensed with.

The commission is encountering opposition to simplifying this legacy both from the parliament and from the member-states. The better-regulation agenda is technocratic and difficult, but may yield larger long-term rewards to the union than the more eye catching proposals that campaigning politicians like to advocate.

The German presidency would do well to lower its sights and focus on the unglamorous task of making what already exists work better. On such an agenda Angela Merkel and Gordon Brown really could come together.

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