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Friendly takeover

Dominique de Villepin and the Secrets of Europe. By Gustav Seibt

The depth of the mess that France has been plunged into by the plebiscite 'no' can be calculated in the suggestion made by Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin in his government declaration concerning the German French relationship. His idea of a "union with Germany in particular selected areas" is flamboyant terminological feuilletonismus and doctrinaire, highly interesting hot air.

France, still highly centralised, wants to be united with those domains within the German state which don't fall under the authority of the German federal states or Europe. This would comprise the core of the existent federal state, particularly in foreign and defence policy but also in research and social policy – quantitatively expressed, roughly 60 to 70 percent of the German federal budget.

Given the totally different federal composition of the French state, this union would be grotesquely weighted in favour of Paris, and reminiscent of the Napoleonic Rheinbund and the situation Germany found itself in after 1806. At the time, those German states associated with France retained minimal internal competence while military power as well as the foreign and trade policy were subject to strict treaties.

Certainly times have changed and what was then a hostile takeover would be understood today as a friendly one. In the unlikely event that this castle in the air were actually to be erected and built into a functioning system, what would the consequences be? The block between the Atlantic and the Oder would only lead to polarised opposition from the remaining EU treaty partners, which would predictably turn to Euro-sceptical England or orient themselves increasingly towards America. One could expect a new demarcation between "old" and "new" Europe.

The division created by the most recent war in Iraq reiterated other inner-European structural boundaries, which had manifested themselves after the cold war during the discussions on Yugoslavia. Suddenly the constellation of the period between the two World Wars played a fatal role again, complete with the instability of the inner-European coalitions and interest groups. It is as certain as the law of gravity that Villepin's idea would have a similar effect, were it to be realised. And the Federal Republic of Germany would lose the equidistance from Paris and Washington on which its foreign position has traditionally been based. Such a step would rob Germany of its importance in the international realm. Its foreign policy would be decided in Paris.

The realisation of such a project is inconceivable: this is the charm of Villepin's doctrinaire, brilliantly feuilletonistic suggestion. It could lead to a further historical understanding of the finality of Europe, of the "European project". At the present, this is primarily being conceived by intellectuals and lawyers in terms that stem from the development of the modern nation-state. In the future, the feeling of community and citizenship and the European public should be carried by a constitutional framework which should compensate, in a democratic way, for the deficient legitimacy of the European superstructure.

This future citizen's and constitutional European state would be post-traditional, extra-ethnic and multi-linguistic, held together by the economy and trade and social and legal guarantees on the one hand, but also by shared values and ideals on the other. Europe would become a democratic civil state with a super-national culture but nonetheless oriented to the unity of people and state, which Hegel described as 'particularly general'. Europe would be a further "universal nation", based on a predominantly French model, with a few American modifications.

In contrast to these concepts, we must urgently recall the second, in parts antagonistic historical basis of the European idea; the concept of a European balance, the "Societé Civile" of European powers, which was set up following the Enlightenment advance of the 18th century by the restorative diplomats of the Vienna Congress with the help of France but also in opposition to the universal, expansionist nation of Napoleon. At the time it was considered a given that only with the equal participation by all nations in the European balance of powers, peace would be guaranteed to all of Europe. This system held until 1914, despite the radical transformation caused by the founding of the Italian and German states.

In 1919 in Versailles, it was no longer possible to stabilise such a multi-limbed European arrangement of states, in part because the drafters of the Versailles treaty could not bring themselves to offer defeated Germany the mild conditions of peace that France had been amicably offered in 1814/15, largely due to the superior insight of Metternich und Castlereagh. It was primarily the French politicians who prevented this in Versailles, after the unprecedented terror of trench warfare which had taken place in France.

But the problem of an inner-European balance continued to exist, exacerbated by the downfall of the multi-ethnic states of Russia, Austria and the Ottoman Empire and by the Right to Self Determination of the People that was made doctrine by American President Woodrow Wilson.

After the victory over Hitler's Germany, the Cold War initially obscured this ongoing European peace problematic. The question of hegemony and balance of power in the European context was overshadowed by the global polarisation of the atomic powers. Almost immediately after German reunification of 1989/90, European policy encountered it again. The defense strategies of Thatcher and Mitterand conformed to the classic power dynamic of Europe; German reunification was made possible largely due to the cooperation of the opposing Cold War powers, the United States and the Soviet Union. France was calmed down with its admission to the monetary union. Then came Yugoslavia, followed by the Iraq war and these events proved how much of the tension of the old constellation of Europe was still alive.

It is thus more than just a turn of phrase to describe the EU as a thing between a federation of states and a federal republic. Both terms represent a concentration of historical experience whose importance cannot be overestimated. The nation, including its federal state, stands for the realisation of freedom while the federation of states represents the guarantee of peace. In reality, the experience of power expressed in the term of the federation of states plays a much greater role, while in the stratosphere of ideas, it is the notion of the federal republic with its connotations of the nation and freedom, that dominates. France, with its centralist tradition and traditionally broken relationship to the European balance has greater problems with the terminological balance than England, Benelux, Italy or Germany – the last traditionally split nations.

Dominique de Villepin is considered an elegant aesthete, loves lyrics and great rhetorical performances. Perhaps before making his suggestion, he should have consulted a masterpiece of French prose which, after a certain amount of turbulence, gained a clarified European perspective: the Memoirs of Talleyrand, Foreign Minister under Napoleon, then under Louis XVIII at the Vienna Congress, finally as representative of Louis Philippe, in charge of the European founding of Belgium in 1830. Nowhere are the secrets of the European society of states better thought through than in this work.


The article originally appeared in German in the Süddeutsche Zeitung on June 10, 2005.

Gustav Seibt, born in 1959, studied literature and history. He was editor at the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, has written for Die Zeit and currently writes for the Süddeutsche Zeitung. His most recent book "Rom oder Tod" deals with the founding of Italy in 1861.

translation: nb - let's talk european