It is impressive to see that with each election the majority of comments are ready to fall and to fall again in the same trap. Taking rhetoric for granted and despizing geopolitical realities, they tell us – some of them with enthusiasm, others with apprehension – how foreign policy is bound to undergo a fundamental change. It is, however, far from being that simple.
Packaging may change indeed. Sometimes even emphases, temporarily. Yet the main strategic guidelines stay unaltered in the background and, sooner or later they resurface inevitably. This postulate is valid both for regarding the rebalancing of the opportunist shift à la Schröder, and the limits of the "change of orientation", so many times announced, à la Merkel. Stressing that in both cases, the flow and the force of the events point in one and the same direction.
As for the international consequences of the outcome of German elections due tomorrow, generally two issues are evoked: relations with America and those with France. The former supposed to become more and the latter less intimate in the event of a change of government. These two predictions are, however, to be strongly relativized.
1. Schröder and his team are actually closer to the United States than what would be the impression according to their rhetoric and to simplifying comments.
It is worth to recall that chancellor Schröder’s critical stance towards America is but the result of petty electoral considerations. In September 2002, in the last round of the campaign, he decided to exploit - in an excessive and politically irresponsible way - the pacifism of public opinion, and to orchestrate its discourse around the topic "we will not click heels at the first whistle coming from America". By doing this, he locked himself in a radical "shift" compared to traditional German policy line (an equilibrist performance between Atlantic loyalty and Franco-German “communauté de destin” or shared destiny).
If emancipation from American tutelage and the tightening of the Franco-German bond fit perfectly in the major tendencies of the structural changes accelerating from the beginning of the 1990’s, the Schröder’s “shift”, by its very radicalism (in contrast to the French stance, it is unforeseeable and misses strategic consistency) cannot be entirely regarded as positive. In addition, his campaign "acts of bravery" were followed by a whole series of attempts to redeem himself. With the signature of a document entitled "German-American Alliance for the 21st century", as one of the highest points, in February 2004.
As regards Merkel’s much evoked Atlanticism, in addition to the aforementioned long-term tendencies and the dissensions in its own camp, a number of concrete factors are likely to put it to the test. Such as the rather strong reserves of its public opinion, the official refusal of a military engagement in Iraq, the differences in opinion about Turkey’s EU accession, the modalities of withdrawal of American troops stationed in Germany and the polemic around US nuclear warheads still stored on the German soil. The whole "spiced up" by the Bush administration’s attitude, not so far known for its diplomatic refinement.
2. Merkel and her team are not - and cannot be - as far from France as some in Washington (and in so many other places) would like to hope.
Before giving too much credit to the theses on the inevitable fading of the Franco-German bond in the event of a CDU/CSU victory, it would be useful to recall that the same predictions were made hear before the advent of Gerhard Schröder. This latter had affirmed himself that “The days when the French president and the German chancellor could decide on everything that went on in Europe are over. The Franco-German axis must be transformed into a triangle involving London.” However, the European press ended by spoking about the fusional relation between "Gerhard Chirac" and "Jacques Schröder" (at the EU summit in October 2003, Schröder asked Chirac to replace him and speak on his behalf).
And apart from highly symbolic gestures, there are also, once again, the facts. The innumerable economic, cultural and security-related networks to which the common army corps, the common armament companies, the bilingual television channel, the recently published common history schoolbook or the TGV (high-speed train) that will connect the two countries as from 2007, are only the tip of the iceberg.
It should also be noted that the idea of an avant-garde (small group of countries decided to go further and faster in the integration process) based on the Franco-German couple was initially defended by eminent personalities in Merkel’s camp. And it is still them who has drawn it again into the spotlights these last months, in particular after the refusal of the new European treaty by the French referendum. (It is not as if Schröder himself had not given some phone calls with the same aim, but he did it, function obliges, much more discreetly.)
As for the propensity of the Franco-German couple to flirt with third parties, it is inoffensive, and even desirable. Each step forward in the field of European defence up to now was the result of trilateral agreements within the Paris-Berlin-London triangle; the triangle known as of Weimar can play a useful part to cajole Poland; the co-operation in the "G5" framework (Paris, Berlin, London, Madrid and Rome) is essential for police and intelligence coordination on the operational level. It is the Schröder’s diplomatic blunder, that - contrary to the German traditions - he had not succeeded in establishing much friendlier relations with the small and new Member States: this is to be rectified, in any event, as soon as possible.
All these partnerships are far from calling into question the central and fundamental role of the Franco-German couple. On the contrary: the less the couple appears exclusive, more quickly external resistance will decrease and more easily the option which constitutes the only viable means to proceed further with the integration project can be “sold": namely the idea of an avant-garde based on the Franco-German couple, functioning like a pulling force for the whole of the Union.
3. It is not the mediocre politicians, but the events that will eventually fix the course of German foreign policy.
The deep tendencies coming into light since the end of the cold war point in one and the same direction, both in the transatlantic field and at the European level. This time, we will not go into the details of structural tensions between the two sides of the Atlantic and we will not enumerate the increasingly strong external and internal question marks concerning the American "empire". We will neither explicate here and now the need for the political-institutional management of divergences within the Union of 25, and the crucial importance of safeguarding the political and strategic assets (sovereignty, in the final analysis) with regard to Europe’s democratic legitimation.
We limit ourselves here to one final remark. Namely that the future is in the Europeans’ coming of age vis-a-vis the United States and in the avant-garde concept – whether the idea is liked in Washington (and in so many other places) or not. And whether European political elite – French and German in particular - are able to pursue this line as of today or prefer to await a series of slaps on their face from the outside and of crises inside to arrive to the same conclusion.