I have received comments and email when I have posted on European matters, such as the rejection of the EU Constitution, that question the relevance of these issues to US foreign policy. Many view the European project as an enterprise of long conversations with little change. Europe, long now weak on "hard" power, is becoming even softer in the "soft" power category, many rightfully charge.
However, while following power is important, the reverse is also true. Where there is a vacuum, changes usually occur, and oftentimes radical ones at that. From the turn of the 20th Century sick man of Europe, Turkey (of the late great Ottoman Empire) to the Soviet Union's disintegration a power, vacuum creates great uncertainty and often leads to shifting alliances with major powers. Fourteen years after the fall of the Soviet Union, many of the former Soviet states are actively pursing a policy that aligns them with the West and in the good graces of the US foreign policy and military establishments.
The Franco-German alliance
The Franco-German alliance, centered around a socialist, non-US world centric view, attempted to take the European nations (both East and West) in a direction that reflects their economic and strategic priorities. The Iraq War was a clear case in point. Gerhard Schroeder's siding with Mr. Chirac and turning away from the US, a historic ally, and Great Britain helped him secure his party's narrow reelection. His chance of beating Ms. Markel, with no anti-US sentiment to again rally his people, is grim come September.
Mr. Chirac's 24% approval ratings (almost half that of the world-hated Mr. Bush's approval ratings) and his defeat over the EU Constitution led him to elevate Mr. Dominique de Villepin (the chief French "Non" at the UN against the US position) to be Prime Minister.
Double-digit unemployment in both Germany and France are the chief reasons for their citizens' discontent. What remaining soft power the Franco-German alliance retains in the EU is draining away as their economies continue to sputter. This example from the Economist of Mr. de Villepin's prescription for handling the unemployment problem looks like a short-term solution with long-term problems.
"It relies heavily on subsidised municipal job creation. The scheme could dent the unemployment figures, which show that 10.2% of the workforce is without a job. But it will do little to free up the labour market. And its expansion will come at a price—an extra €4.5 billion ($5.5 billion) in 2006, said Mr de Villepin. He added that, as all extra money had to be dedicated to jobs, he would have to suspend Mr Chirac’s promised income-tax cuts. Even so, Eric Chaney, chief European economist at Morgan Stanley, says he is raising his budget-deficit forecast for 2006 from 3% to 3.5%."
Rather than take on structural reform of the powerful French unions, 35-hour work weeks, or 60-year retirement age that France cannot continue to afford, the government will pay large government contracts to unions through public debt and set aside already promised tax relief that would have encouraged new business.
The French solution is far from it. Handing out benefits to the portions of their economy they most need to reform will continue to eat away at French soft power as they become an economic embarrassment to Europe, especially when viewed against Great Britain with a 4.8% unemployment rate.
A British-German alliance?
With Tony Blair heading up the EU and being pro-American, and former East German Angela Markel likely to win Mr. Schroeder's job, the Franco-German alliance of the big three powers in Europe will collapse and with it, the dream of a European "third way" apart from the US. France will find itself isolated further within Europe.
However, a weak Germany and a continued weak France, while cynically amusing to those in the US who supported the Iraq war and promoting democracy in the Middle East, is not in the long-term interests of the US.
An EU focused on economic growth, good structural policy, and a desire to invest in their military capability is in the US interest. A British-German alliance within the EU would go a long way towards increasing Europe's relevance and promote stability not only on their continent but in the Middle East, Africa (as seen in the recent G8 debt relief) and Asia as well.
UPDATE:The Scotsman has an interesting article that leads "Blair aims to split Franco-German alliance" and opens:
"TONY BLAIR yesterday launched his strategy to isolate Jacques Chirac - by building an alliance with the woman expected to replace Gerhard Schröder as chancellor of Germany.
The Prime Minister's first stop when he arrived in Berlin was not to the Germany chancellery, but to visit Angela Merkel, the right-winger expected to come to power if the country's elections go ahead in September as planned.
While he was rebuffed by Mr Schröder yesterday, Ms Merkel gave a speech where she attacked Mr Chirac - and said that Britain's European Union budget rebate was fully justified, as it pays so much in taxes. Mr Blair spent half an hour in talks with Ms Merkel, and is understood to have presented her with an argument for a root-and-branch reform of the EU which would punish French farmers and reward eastern Europe."