Volatility from Paris

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6 Sept 2005 | Disrespect

This is hardly the most important event of the moment, but doesn't anyone else find it just a tad disrespectful that a day after Chief Justice Rehnquist dies, his successor is already announced? And that his successor is having his confirmation hearings while Rehnquist's body is lying in state at the Supreme Court?

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6 July 2005 | Paris Loses to London

So Paris has lost the 2012 Olympic games to London. There was, of course, tremendous deception among Parisians. I myself was of two minds: happy enough to have the games here in Paris, especially for the once-in-a-lifetime benefit of my children; but also not wanting Chirac to receive any political boost, which he would have had Paris won.

In retrospect it would seem that the critical moment, which led to the fateful decision today, was the French "no" in the referendum on the European Constitution. It is said that in Hollywood, the idea behind a successful film can always be summarized successfully in a sentence. My guess is that the IOC likewise looks for a story behind each Olympics which can be represented in a short phrase. Paris had such a story before the referendum. It could pose as the capital of Europe - a strong, vibrant Europe, with a new political framework, as it would have had in 2012 had the Constitution been adapted. But after the referendum Europe looks more like a subject to be avoided. Maybe it will improve sooner or later, but now Europe is a mess, and so Paris was robbed of its story.

The British, always Euro-skeptics, put forth a story independent of Europe. They presented London as the capital of the world, a cosmopolitan city whose mother tongue is the world's universal language. In the end, the IOC bought into that story and so chose London.

That Paris had Chirac in its corner and London Blair in its, favored the city on the Thames.

Anyway, congratulations to London, and with luck we'll be there to see some of the events in 2012. After all, it's just two and a half hours away by train.

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18 June 2005 | Stalemate, not Failure

The European leader summit has ended in stalemate, with no decision on the budget for 2007-2013. The operative word here is "stalemate." Others would have used "failure," but that only shows whose side they are on. For the Franco-German axis, or rather the Chirac-Schroder axis, it is indeed failure. They wanted agreement on their terms - and only agreement on their terms. They didn't get it and so they are upset, and yes they have indeed failed.

For Britain, though, it is stalemate but not failure. It takes over the EU Presidency for the next six months, and it will gain a partner once Schroder is beaten by his CDU opponent, Angela Merkel, in the German election in September. Indeed Merkel basically told Blair pre-summit to hold fast to his position. Schroder has now been deprived a victory at the summit, to Merkel's advantage.

Note, as an aside, that the big three of Europe risk being Blairized. Britain has the original, Germany will get Merkel in the fall, and France in 2007 has a good chance of electing liberal-minded Sarkozy. It won't quite be cut-throat capitalism a la Americain, but the European social model is at more risk in the next two years than at any other time since the Second World War. And the one countervailing trend, a socially minded politically integrated Europe, has been thrown into the dustbin by the French electorate in one of the worst political own-goals in history.

The French, German, and Luxembourg leader (a dishonest honest broker if there ever was one) are blaming the British for the summit's inability to arrive at an agreement. But it is clear that Britain's position is thoroughly consistent and just and belies the noise coming from the French side that Britain had every chance a few months ago to disagree with the CAP but chose not to. The British do not object to the CAP; they object to paying for it. If Germany and other countries want to make huge payments to French farmers, then that is their business and Britain will not object too strenuously to such folly. But Britain will not contribute and the folly will not be hers. So any discussion about the British rebate must accompany discussion about the budget, because the British position must fundamentally harden should their rebate be taken away, once it becomes their money being thrown away.

Chirac and Schroder may say the transfer is for "solidarity," but it is really ransom payments. France has always insisted on them, and has shown willingness to hold up other EU business, such as enlargement, to keep it. The French think of all kinds of good excuses why the payments are justified, but what they really like is getting their hands on money. If the payments went to French carpenters or French postmen, then they would be just as content and just as insistent on keeping them. Their outrage at Britain's insistence to keep its money is thus hypocrisy at its worse, with the only difference being that at least the British view has fundamental rightness underlying it.

It is the next EU summit which looks, at least today, that it will end in failure. For then a British-German combination will try to push a budget which puts the PAC into question. And Chirac will veto.

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12 June 2005 | Ransom Payment

The French journalist, Florence Aubenas, has been released by her abductors in Iraq and is now back in France. It has come at such a convenient time for Jacques Chirac and the French government, beset by a complete loss of confidence among the French electorate due to the "no" vote in the referendum on the European Constitution, that it is hard not to draw conclusions. The French, who up to now must have refused, finally agreed to pay a ransom. The government will deny it of course, but the only question is how much was paid.

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9 June 2005 | Dog Bites Man

Apparently it is news that the U.S. opposes Germany's Security Council ambitions, since the NYT has written about it. But surely this is one of the least surprising stories in a long while.

Germany and France have followed a foreign policy so indistinguishable these past few years as to look like Tweedle-dum and Tweedle-dee. Put together the two are still less than half the size, if that, of the United States on almost every measure. So why should they get two Security Council seats and votes, while the U.S. only gets one? Not only is it not in the interest of the United States, it makes no sense whatsoever. Japan, India, and Brazil all can stake a much better claim.

If Germany really wants a seat, it should look to France to give the French seat up in its favor - or to share it. Not that would make much more sense.

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6 June 2005 | The Gaul

France is in crisis and it needs a scapegoat. It seems to have settled on perfidious Albion and Tony Blair. From Le Figaro this morning:
The French and Dutch rejection of the Constitution, although posing problems to the British Presidency of the EU [which begins in July], offers the unmatchable advantage of sparing Tony Blair the irreparable humiliation of defeat [in a British referendum], which the polls are predicting. His Machiavellian reputation is reinforced. Not his identity as a self-proclaimed European, according to John Kampfner, the editor of the New Statesman, who says that, while Tony Blair has multiplied his professions of being a europhile, "he has done more than all his predecessors to undermine the [European] Union," from his repeated attempts to plot "the break-up of the Franco-German couple," to the unrestrained enlargement of Europe, passing by the unfilled promise of Britain joining the monetary union and British support of America on Iraq.

Without counting yet one more repudiation of relevance. At the beginning of last year, the Prime Minister promised Jacques Chirac that he would not organize a referendum on the treaty. "Five months later," he broke his promise, forcing the French President to follow his example. The referendum having had the effect that one can see in Britain, Mr. Blair understands it is not longer in his interest to have one. A "machination" which allows Blair, barely reelected last month, to prolong his stay at Downing Street.

Now I doubt very seriously that Blair gave Chirac any kind of hard pledge on not holding a referendum. First and most obviously, whether Britain holds a referendum, on any topic, is not a French President's decision. If Chirac really thought he was owed a hard-and-fast undertaking on the matter, Blair would have told him (diplomatically of course) to go jump in the lake. Nor is Blair simply one to offer promises for free. So the situation in which Blair provided an engagement is difficult to imagine, especially since he has never been on good terms with Chirac. Secondly, anyone with the least knowledge of Blair's speech knows that he is extremely careful in how he phrases his remarks. At best he would have offered conditions which needed to obtain should a referendum not be held, and these conditions would be suitably broad that they could be interpreted at will. Any claim by the French that Blair broke a promise, thus forcing the innocent French into the awful predicament that they now find themselves, is laughable.

The French have one person to blame for their present state, and he is Chirac himself. The sooner they consign him to the dustbin of history, the better off they will be.

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4 June 2005 | The Obstacle to Agreement on the European Budget

Given the failure of the European Constitution in two referenda, in France and the Netherlands, this past week, "old" Europe would dearly like to reach agreement on the 2007-2013 budget. At the least it would prevent the surfacing of another major crisis. Better it would demonstrate some faith in a European future.

According to Reuters,

Germany said on Friday that reaching a rapid deal on the EU's future budget was crucial and depended on Britain's willingness to compromise on the cherished rebate it won under Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in 1984.

A senior German government official, who requested anonymity, also told reporters in Berlin that all EU members should be prepared to compromise in order to get a deal, though he said touching French agricultural benefits was out of the question.

Now the attitude of Britain has always been pretty clear, and extremely reasonable, on the question of the budget. If Germany is crazy enough to be willing to have its taxpayers pay for subsidies to French farmers, then that is its business. British taxpayers, however, will not. European solidarity should not mean pouring money into France.

The senior German official, and by extension Germany, is dreaming if the British will give up their rebate without the French sacrificing their subsidies. Before the French referendum there was more or less agreement in European capitals that a budget deal would have to wait until after the German elections in September. It hardly seems likely that the British will feel themselves obliged to rush to an agreement simply because French voters have thrown a fit.

Of course France and Germany will try to portray the British as not being a team player, but it is really France which is the root of the problem. There is no justification for this kind of transfer payment to France. None. Zero. What's more, the British are likely to have gained allies across Europe, as the French "no" has shown that France isn't exactly a team player either.

France and Germany can always threaten to launch a core Europe if they don't get agreement. One suspects that Schroder was thinking in that direction when he asked the six founding members - Germany, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, and Belgium - of the EC to meet. But the Dutch Prime Minister refused. Given that a leading Italian politician has just called for dumping the euro and returning to the lira, it would hardly seem that Italy is much of an asset at this point to the European project. Luxembourg and Belgium are small, so that leaves France and Germany. But Schroder is a lame duck, about to get an electoral trouncing in September. He can't threaten closer cooperation with France to bludgeon others to agree, because no one thinks he will be able to deliver.

So it comes back to finding a budget agreement which is fair and sensible. Britain pays more, Germany and the Netherlands and others pay less but a little more than they wanted, and French farmers give up their rebates. The obstacle to that compromise is France. If there is no agreement, then the fault is with the French and no one else.

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