European Affairs

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A Forward-Looking German Presidency

For at least two years, whenever or whatever went wrong in the European Union or in Transatlantic relations, there was an implicit expectation that it would be fixed… by the German presidency. Now Berlin’s turn has come: it has until June 2007, using Germany’s organizational ability and political skills, to make headway in resolving the multi-dimensional contradictions that have become our daily fare in the Western Hemisphere. Chancellor Merkel and her diplomatic team have laid the constructive groundwork for initiatives and meetings while seeking to lower expectations to align them more closely with what Berlin deems possible.

British voices have made themselves heard, notably in Washington, warning that Germany is not as powerful as it used to be because Berlin can no longer count on the solidity and influence of “the Franco-German couple.” True, France may no longer be as enthusiastic as it was about European integration: nowadays, Paris looks askance at the predominance of “Anglo-Saxon liberalism” in EU institutions. And, true, the Franco-German couple cannot be as influential in an EU numbering 27 countries as it was when there were 15 members. Does that mean that expectations should be lowered to the point where not much should be expected?

The German presidency’s work will be impeded by the French electoral calendar involving a presidential election in late May. Berlin can hardly propose spectacular initiatives before knowing who will lead French foreign policy-making and what their views will be. But Chancellor Merkel is right to try to revive the stalled EU constitution. There is general agreement that no further EU enlargement can happen without prior institutional reform within the union. Her plan is to convene a conference of the 18 member states that have ratified the constitution; then bring together the countries which voted against it in their referenda; and then move toward a common approach by the end of the German term. The hope is to preserve some key aspects of the text (such as a smaller European Commission, the creation of a full-time EU president and a foreign minister) and to reform the voting rules on unanimity and qualified majorities in order to facilitate the decision-making process.

Moreover, it may be a mistake to assert that the Franco-German couple has become a thing of the past. It is more likely to remain a thing of the future. While relations between Chancellor Merkel and Jacques Chirac may not have the same quality as the ties between Helmut Kohl and François Mitterrand or between Gerhard Schroeder and the same Jacques Chirac, the relationship is still relatively strong and effective. The fact is that whoever is elected president of France will probably work well with German leaders. Nicolas Sarkozy has already established a personal relationship with Angela Merkel. If the Socialist candidate, Segolene Royal, is elected, she will be interested in cooperating with another woman across the Rhine. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine that any French president could have a bad relationship with Berlin – for the simple reason that no alternative to good relations with Germany would be credible or acceptable to French voters. They could be expected to create immediate difficulties for any government that strayed from good relations. Even if cooperation between Germany and France is not enough these days to drive the European train, it is still a necessary pre-condition for Europe to move together in the same direction. A Chinese proverb says, during bad periods one prepares for better times, and it will probably transpire that the German presidency initiates a process leading to solutions of many present difficulties. Work started in the German presidency may be ready to complete in the second half of 2008, when France holds the EU presidency.

This step-by-step process – going to better times, as the Chinese say – should be welcome to the U.S. European unity was one of the casualties of the first Bush administration. The war in Iraq divided European countries and exposed the extent to which Anglo-American influence has become dominant in the European system. But a divided Europe is no more in U.S. interests than an EU promoting itself as a countervailing power. Partnership will be necessary for the U.S. to progressively fix the situation in Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, the Middle East and North Korea. That will require a coherent EU, which expresses the diversity of its components in ways that do not break its overall unity.

To recover a footing for Transatlantic unity, the U.S. and the EU should join in promoting a common project of great magnitude capable of arousing enthusiasm on both sides of the Atlantic. Security issues are always vital, but initiatives in this sector do not generate popular enthusiasm because such steps are painful – and there is a history of disagreement on how to proceed. Even if our governments have converged in their approaches, bruised public opinions are still not in synch. The so-called “New Transatlantic Agenda” is getting old and its seemingly endless list of “priorities” gets longer at each US-EU summit. While there is nothing wrong with the list, the public completely ignores it. Then there is the idea of a “Transatlantic Free Trade Area”: some of us have thought it could generate the kind of enthusiasm capable of leading to a U.S.-EU Treaty. But the more protectionist mood emerging in the U.S. Congress and elsewhere is adding new obstacles to the old ones.

A Transatlantic environment policy may have the potential of becoming an ambitious project that meets people’s expectations in all our countries. Right now, public consciousness of the environmental challenge presented by climate change seems to be growing every week. The mood is changing in Congress and many American states. Sooner than expected, Europeans and Americans may find themselves much closer on this issue. Doing at least one thing well together – and talking about it – would be healthy. It may take some time, but isn’t the German Presidency working right now on what will happen in 2008? Then in 2009, as a conclusion of this process, Europe-wide elections will produce a new European Parliament, opening a new phase.


This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number 7, Issue number 3-4 in the Fall/Winter of 2006.

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