Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

A Body in Search of a Head

The EU can't get its act together when it comes to a common foreign policy. But it's common economics that's screwed the Syrian rebels.

By , a professor of history at the University of Houston’s Honors College and the author of Victories Never Last: Reading and Caregiving in a Time of Plague.
Antoine Antoniol/Getty Images
Antoine Antoniol/Getty Images
Antoine Antoniol/Getty Images

Appalled by what he called the "utopian myth" of a supranational state, Charles de Gaulle insisted that Europe must always remain a community of sovereign nations. A half century later, as the European Union is whipsawed by the effects of a single monetary policy -- imposed by the nation that de Gaulle once saw as France's junior partner -- and a singularly incoherent foreign policy, Europe confronts the tragic realization that the general was both right and wrong: The continent is both a supranational state whose fiscal austerity policy borders on the dystopian, and a group of nations whose various conceptions of common security are downright chaotic.

In 1958, de Gaulle's turn towards Europe, and in particular West Germany, was driven by his desire to maintain France's independence on the world stage. Lacking the financial and military means to carry out this imperative -- and recognizing that the projection of French influence depended on a solid European pedestal -- the president of the newly created Fifth Republic had no choice but to accept wholeheartedly the European Economic Community, which had been born the preceding year. But with a distinctly Gaullist proviso: While all the members were equals, some were to be more equal than others.

As the travails of President François Hollande reveal, this rule still holds fast -- but France is now its victim. Despite calls from the left wing of his own party to challenge Germany's insistence on rigid austerity measures, Hollande has had little success in parrying the dictates from Bonn and Brussels. While he sought to portray the European Union's decision to allow France two more years to bring the country's deficit down to 3 percent as a victory for Paris over Berlin, his critics -- on the left as well as the right -- dismissed the move as little more than a reprieve. Jean-François Copé, leader of the neo-Gaullist Union for a Popular Movement, recently lamented that France has "become isolated and her voice inaudible" in European affairs.

Appalled by what he called the "utopian myth" of a supranational state, Charles de Gaulle insisted that Europe must always remain a community of sovereign nations. A half century later, as the European Union is whipsawed by the effects of a single monetary policy — imposed by the nation that de Gaulle once saw as France’s junior partner — and a singularly incoherent foreign policy, Europe confronts the tragic realization that the general was both right and wrong: The continent is both a supranational state whose fiscal austerity policy borders on the dystopian, and a group of nations whose various conceptions of common security are downright chaotic.

In 1958, de Gaulle’s turn towards Europe, and in particular West Germany, was driven by his desire to maintain France’s independence on the world stage. Lacking the financial and military means to carry out this imperative — and recognizing that the projection of French influence depended on a solid European pedestal — the president of the newly created Fifth Republic had no choice but to accept wholeheartedly the European Economic Community, which had been born the preceding year. But with a distinctly Gaullist proviso: While all the members were equals, some were to be more equal than others.

As the travails of President François Hollande reveal, this rule still holds fast — but France is now its victim. Despite calls from the left wing of his own party to challenge Germany’s insistence on rigid austerity measures, Hollande has had little success in parrying the dictates from Bonn and Brussels. While he sought to portray the European Union’s decision to allow France two more years to bring the country’s deficit down to 3 percent as a victory for Paris over Berlin, his critics — on the left as well as the right — dismissed the move as little more than a reprieve. Jean-François Copé, leader of the neo-Gaullist Union for a Popular Movement, recently lamented that France has "become isolated and her voice inaudible" in European affairs.

Much to Hollande’s frustration, Germany has proved as unyielding in foreign policy as it has in monetary policy. Last week, the foreign ministers of the European Union voted unanimously to lift the arms embargo on Syria. But far from the deliberate policy of a European Union united in its horror at the carnage wrought by Bashar al-Assad’s regime, the embargo’s expiration was the product of a fractured and fractious institution — one divided over France and Britain’s desire for a more active role in Syria. Faced with the prospect of watching all of the European Union’s existing sanctions against Syria expire at the end of the month — which Paris and London, in a bit of brinksmanship, threatened to allow if the arms ban was not lifted — proponents of the embargo had no choice but to agree.

Following the March meeting of heads of state at the European Council, Hollande warned that not making a choice on Syria would be the worst of all possible choices. "The greatest risk lies in doing nothing. It is only by taking a decision that risks are reduced," he said. But Germany did make a decision: It rejected France and Britain’s push for the European Union to authorize arms deliveries to the rebel forces in Syria. Depending on one’s perspective, this marked either a step forward or step backward from Berlin’s position on Operation Serval, the name given to France’s unilateral military intervention in Mali at the start of the year. Merkel’s government applauded the French decision, but provided only logistical support for the operation. One French former minister for European affairs, the conservative Pierre Lellouche, lamented this perceived stinginess: "For years we have kept repeating the usual diplomatic niceties about the friendship between France and Germany. But the truth of the matter is that we are diverging more and more. On the great questions of foreign policy, each time we need Germany, she is nowhere to be found."

In fact, Germany is always to be found as far as possible from its Nazi past. The German political scientist Hans-Peter Schwarz has identified the two extremes that modern Germany has swung between: a Bismarckian, then Hitlerian "obsession with power" and a post-WWII "forgetting of power." In 2011, with its abstention from the U.N. resolution to intervene militarily in Libya, Germany drove home its determination to embrace the latter. Critically, Merkel’s position reflected public opinion: While a large majority of Germans favored NATO intervention in Libya, an even greater majority insisted that Germany abstain from participation.

The vote to drop the arms embargo is, in this respect, less a robust and calibrated policy decision than confirmation of the impossibility of Europe elaborating, much less pursuing a common policy. Alain Frachon, editorial director of Le Monde, recently noted the obvious: "Europe does not have a Syrian policy." This is all the more disconcerting, he added, "since the region is in Europe’s backyard. Europe is once again divided on a matter which requires it to act."

Equally disconcerting, however, is the underlying conviction that this amounts to a failure of EU foreign policy. Such a claim gives the European Union too much credit: In effect, the organization has never had a foreign policy. As the French diplomat Pierre Henri d’Argenson notes, it is time to rid ourselves of the "myth of a European power" that substitutes itself for the individual prerogatives of individual states: "This will never happen because there will never be a European army. No one will ever die for a European flag, and there will never be a European cemetery."

What is surprising about d’Argenson’s remark is not that it is original — there never has been a there when it comes to a "European" foreign policy — but instead that it still continues to surprise. The barbarity shown by Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria has galvanized many of the same voices, such as Bernard-Henri Lévy’s, that urged the earlier intervention in Libya. Or, perhaps for other observers, the moral dissonance is too great between the fecklessness shown by the EU’s foreign affairs office and forcefulness shown against its own me
mber when it comes to economic and financial affairs.

A joke made the rounds in 2009 when Catherine Ashton was named High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. Phone calls to her office were routed to a voice mail that said: "I am not in right now, but if you wish to know Germany’s position, please press 1; France’s, please press 2," and so on down the line.

In the case of the arms embargo, the joke is ultimately on the Syrian rebels. For now, France has no intention of sending weapons to opposition forces. (Nor, for that matter, does Great Britain.) Despite his claim that acting in Syria is the most effective way of mastering the chaos, Hollande seems determined to make haste slowly. All the more so as the battle France is fighting on the economic front has grown even more desperate. Just last week, responding to the European Commission’s proposal for structural reforms France needs to undertake, Hollande replied that it was "not the place of the Commission, but rather sovereign states to make these decisions."

De Gaulle dixit. 

Robert Zaretsky is a professor of history at the University of Houston’s Honors College and the author of Victories Never Last: Reading and Caregiving in a Time of Plague.

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