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Schriftenreihe des Europa Institutes Budapest, Band 22:85–90.


France’s Policies Toward Europe


At the conclusion of the Second World War General De Gaulle had done everything he could to restore France’s status as a great power but he was only partially successful. The general was not invited to participate in the summit conferences at Yalta and Potsdam. In contrast thanks to the support of Winston Churchill he could play a role in shaping the future of Germany. The actual goal of French foreign policy, achieving independence from the victorious great powers (especially from the United States), was realized only in 1958, when the general returned to power and created the Fifth French Republic. The frequently changing governments of the Fourth Republic maintained an Atlantic-oriented foreign policy corresponding to the wishes of Washington. This was the more so since the period was that of the cold war; France, weakened by the catastrophe of the 1940’s and only gradually recovering (having to depend on the Marshall-plan), was unable to avoid the collapse of its colonial empire that extended above all in the African continent. In spite of this, there were some French initiatives concerning Europe, one of the most significant of these being the proposal of Foreign Minister Robert Schuman, offered on May 1950, for the establishment of a common supervision of French-(West) German coal and steel production authority. Other countries, including Italy, Belgium, Holland and Luxemburg joined the new organization. This provided the “hard core” of European integration that was discussed at great length later on. The absence of Great Britain from the association is obvious, although the British had joined the Council of Europe created in 1949 and then the European Parliament. However, disputes about the supra-nationalist character of the newly created European institutions had already begun between Great Britain and various West European countries.

For the foreign policies of de Gaulle’s France the creation and development of a national nuclear force became imperative. The first president of the Fifth Republic provided incontrovertible proof during each great international crisis – Berlin and Cuba – that he was a trustworthy ally of the United States. At the same time, he intended to conduct an independent foreign policy especially toward the contemporary communist states.

De Gaulle employed with great relish the formula of “Europe of the Europeans,” after 1963, aiming to keep the Americans (and subtly the British) at a distance. According to him, the time had come for Europe to regain control over its own destiny and not to play a secondary role in world affairs any longer. The general referred to the entire continent in this concept and he also included the nations of Central- and Eastern Europe, which were under Soviet domination. This was the basis of his declaration of policies of “détente, entente and cooperation,” the meaning of which correctly interpreted by Hungarians – as this had been shown by the statement of János Péter, then minister of foreign affairs – had created quite a stir. In fact, de Gaulle attempted to prepare for the failures of the politics of blocks being followed by both great powers (the United States and the Soviet Union) and was careful to keep the doors open both ways, toward Moscow and Washington alike. He knew quite well that he did not have sufficient economic means – not to speak of the fact that the dependence of the French military on American logistics continued in effect – and that he would be unable to realize success in the entire range of his European policies. However, his efforts to establish a French-German agreement were successful since they met the efforts of the contemporary West German chancellor, Konrad Adenauer. The agreement signed on January 22nd, 1963 must be considered one of the most significant diplomatic successes of the 20th century, ending centuries of enmity, tensions and mutual hatreds.

The West German-French treaty provides an example for all European nations. It is proof of the fact that there is no insoluble problem if there is mutual good will among contending powers.

Of course the great reconciliation between Frenchmen and Germans did not happen from one day to the next. The cooperation between Bonn and Paris has not been for a long time completely free of certain second thoughts. During the presidency of Valéry Giscard d’Estaing French diplomacy looked with some distrust at West German governmental policies toward the East which, in a short time, proved much more effective than that of the “peaceful penetration” followed by De Gaulle. Not to speak of the fact that West Germans had been much more effective than the French in commercial affairs. It appeared for a while that, although Berlin and Bonn were allies concerning internal affairs within Western Europe, they were more in competition in relations to East Central Europe. This was also the case in their relations with the South – concerning Mediterranean and African affairs; the French were attempting to keep the West Germans at arm’s length in these regions, while the situation was the reverse in matters concerning the East. In addition, the two countries did not coordinate their policies toward Great Britain and, especially the United States.

The events of 1989 had naturally a great impact on French policies toward Europe. Some of the leading French politicians began to understand at this time that, besides the French-German competition, it will be more important to consider the fact that Washington will have greater direct influence on issues determining the future of the continent. This was illustrated in a spectacular way by the visit of President George Bush to Poland and Hungary in July and his decisive role at the economic summit held in the French capital. Francois Mitterand, the French President at the time, would have liked better if a much closer German-French cooperation than had existed before could be established, influencing the peaceful transformation taking place in the East Central European countries. However, this did not happen; in fact, a temporary tension emerged between Paris and Bonn at the end of 1989 when the French president made a surprise visit to the German Democratic Republic where the German Chancellor Kohl could feel at home already for several weeks. The real reason for the visit was that James Baker, the American Secretary of State, spent some hours for the first and last time on the territory of the German Democratic Republic. Mitterand wanted to respond to this with a spectacular gesture.

Mitterand’s other actions were also reminiscent of de Gaulle’s Europe-conception and these had their impact on the momentary development of German-French relations. One of these was the proposal of the French President, offered at a press briefing he held in East Berlin and later raised at Prague in the spring of 1989 for a plan for the creation of a European confederation. According to his vision, such a confederation could accommodate all European countries, including the Soviet Union which had but a few months left of its existence and excluding the United States that was not part of Europe. The East Central European states regarded the French proposal with shock, since they had just been freed of communism. This was the more so because the major goal of their security policy was joining the Atlantic Alliance, directed by the Americans, as soon as possible. Not surprisingly, the newly unified Germany was also unwilling to support the French proposal.

Another conflict emerged between Bonn and Paris at the beginning of the Yugoslav crisis when Chancellor Kohl announced, as president of the Europe Council, the recognition of the independence of Croatia and Slovenia without consulting Mitterand, that was followed by a positive French decision a few days later.

Consequently, at the time of the dissolution of Titoist Yugoslavia, the German-French alliance was not working well. Later the situation changed. As a series of European diplomatic initiatives had failed, the Americans took the initiative in the process, first through NATO and later through diplomatic channels. All this led to the well-known Dayton accords, an act that may be considered an outstanding success for American diplomacy. From that time on the fundamental decisions concerning Bosnia, Kosovo or Macedonia had been made in Washington and the influence of the West European states seriously declined. In addition, when the first discussions for the expansion of NATO took place, the Europeans had no chance to have their voices heard. It is well known that France lobbied for long months on behalf of the addition of Romania, and the Italians had done the same for Slovenia, but Clinton, the American President at the time, was unwilling to change the list presented by the Pentagon.

France had played a subordinate role in the expansion of NATO all the more because the Americans were quite aware of the fact that Paris did not represent the opinion of the rest of the Europeans. In fact, there was no such opinion in any case, as there is not one even today. This is the consequence, at least in part, of the behaviour of the British.

London has been playing a double game for a long time. No matter if a conservative or labour party is in power, a decisive role in British foreign policy is played by its relations to the United States. At the same time, Britain does not want to be isolated from the continent and especially from France. A French-British conference held in Saint Malo in 1998 gave a new impetus to the bilateral relations of the two countries, including the idea of the creation of a joint European strategy. However, many people are of the opinion that the real goal of Great Britain is continuing attachment to a common foreign policy of the Anglo-Saxon powers. As far as the European Union is concerned, what the British really want is a European zone of free trade.

The summit meeting at Nizza held in 2000, was a supremely important conference where a decision had been reached for the expansion of the European Union. The French were supportive of the expansion, but when discussions began about the actual process and about the future of Europe in general serious disputes ensued not only among the French political parties, but within each of them as well. Much of this concerned relations with Great Britain which, in light of the later development of international relations, also touched upon the building of a unified Europe.

I have already mentioned above the “special relations” existing between Great Britain and the United States. In the matter of Iraq, tensions emerged – at least temporarily – between Great Britain that supported the United States in every way on the one hand and France and Germany on the other. The development of the situation following the war justified the original position of Paris and Berlin in every way. This is the explanation of the renewed British “interest” in Europe since early 2004, following their partial disappointment in the American policies. This interest found favourable response in leading political circles in France and Germany. The development has some geopolitical reasons. The French and the Germans thought for years that close cooperation may be established in the “Weimar Triangle” with Poland and the three countries could be the basis of a European defence policy. In the crisis over Iraq, however, Poland had become the number one eastern partner of the United States, although there are some signs that the American-mania of official Warsaw circles had somewhat declined in recent times. One of the consequences of this is the fact that the French and the Germans now turn towards Great Britain when talking about a joint defensive system for Europe, in other words, they would like to rely on British support replacing that of Poland. However, as we had mentioned this before, when thinking about Great Britain, it is advisable to remain cautious.

It is obvious that concerning the creation of an effective European defence system – not the least as a consequence of French initiatives – there has been some results. Decisions made in December 2003 strengthened the capacity of the European Union for independent military planning and leadership. However, there is still a great deal to be done.

One thing is certain, the relations between NATO and a European defensive force have been clarified. Jacques Chirac said in his speech delivered in the Hungarian parliament that values connecting the Euro-Atlantic community are stronger than temporary disagreements. However, for NATO to remain strong and solid, it is necessary to develop respect for the position of its members and also that Europe must exist militarily as well and this does not always meet with enthusiasm in Washington, which is fully understandable. In the opinion of the French, the creation of a “political Europe” is equally important. French opinion is united in that a new chapter is beginning in the history of our continent by the unification. There are also obvious reasons for the opinion that the “Europe of the Twenty-Five” will not be able to operate without a new constitution. Negotiations [for such a document] have not yet been successful and some people are worried that the expanding Union will increasingly become a place for competing groupings of states. This will have to be avoided. Therefore, the acceptance of a constitution in 2004 is the primary goal for Paris. This will not be possible without compromises that would have to become part of almost every aspect of the Union’s activities. Today not every member accepts – and not only the states that are part of the expansion – the replacement of requirements for unanimous decisions that are paralyzing the decision-making process with a weighted majority vote. There are understandable fears among states joining the Union on May 1st about the emergence of a Europe of “two speeds.” But this is not the issue. Declarations follow after one another emphasizing the conviction of people that the European Union can only be built jointly; therefore, the “Europe of the Twenty Five” provides the natural framework for common activities. In practice, however, this framework must include – in case of need, not in an automatic way – more flexibility and willingness for compromises; according to experiences having been gained in long years, some countries may progress faster and want to go further than others; others seem to be procrastinating. Attention is being called by Paris to the fact that not every member of the “Europe of fifteen members” introduced the Euro immediately and at the same time, and this is not the only example, proving developments within the respective states have been reached and are in progress. France’s position is that the most dedicated supporters of building Europe should be able to form groups of so-called “pioneers,” who will conquer new territories like explorers for further European integration. Everyone will benefit from such a process sooner or later. All this requires the strict observation of the community’s legal system by everyone; in other words, no one should take separate paths behind the backs of the member states. In the final count this is the reason for the need to enact the European constitution regulating the operations of the Union in detail. It is not impossible to have this accomplished this year, but it needs a common effort by twenty-five members. Lacking a constitution will necessitate the creation of a hard-core of the member states – and both the French government and its opposition agree on this. This naturally does not mean the establishment of some sort of fractions. In addition to France, Germany would also become a “hard core” member and it is possible that Great Britain, disappointed with American policies, would also be interested in playing a more active role in the operations of the European Union. Besides these three middle sized powers, some of the smaller states will also be willing to join the “hard core” in certain circumstances and encourage the others to follow their example. Sooner or later it will be realized that without the “hard core” there will not be a governable Europe. Only a stronger and more believable Europe can help the world to be able to answer the challenges of our age. This means directing and curtailing a process of globalization in the direction of respect for the world’s wide variety of cultures.

Paris, March, 2004.