French President Jacques Chirac will represent Gerhard Schröder in his absence at this week's European Union summit. As Schröder returns to Berlin on Friday, Chirac will speak for Germany in an unprecedented move.
Schröder will pass the reins to Chirac on Friday as he heads back to Berlin for a crunch vote
For some, it is an unprecedented and unsettling move that has sent ripples of concern through the European Union. For others, it is merely a curiosity that has generated mumbled discussions on the strangeness of it all in the corridors of power.
But whatever the standpoint, the news that French President Jacques Chirac has formally agreed to represent German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder in his absence at a European summit this week will confirm that the level of relations between the two leaders and their countries is at an all-time high.
An event of huge symbolism
While Schröder is back at the Bundestag, Germany's parliament, battling for his political future in the crucial reform vote on Friday morning, Chirac will be representing his counterpart at a meeting that until a few days ago would not have made many headlines.
Despite the attendance of a number of EU leaders to discuss the European Constitution and how to boost economic growth, no major decisions are expected at the summit on Friday. But no one should doubt the symbolism of a French president standing in for a German chancellor at any occasion, especially considering the chilly start the two leaders had.
Still, some diplomats believe that the move may send a bad signal to smaller states within the European Union. In the context of the current discussion about the future distribution of voting rights in the European Council and how many seats there should be on the European Commission the move could alienate smaller members who think the larger member states Germany and France are forming a political bloc.
German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer said the smaller states may have a point, but the issue of Chirac speaking for Germany is being blown out of proportion. He told reporters: “I believe, on the one hand, that they interpret this correctly, that it is something new. On the other hand, it is also being overrated. Of course, we have a narrow agreement and besides, we all must be in the Bundestag on Friday.”
The Franco-German relationship has, until recently, not been the most comfortable. The number of wars fought between the two countries in modern times aside, tensions reached serious levels three years ago when Chirac strongly objected to Schröder’s request that Germany’s post-unification population, 82 million compared with 60 million French, be reflected in the voting allocation in Brussels. The ire was reversed when Schröder was riled by Chirac’s support for Edmund Stoiber -- the opposition candidate in last year's German elections.
Opposition brought them together
Chirac and Schröder took abuse over their anti-war stance.
But the reason for the strengthening of ties between the two leaders can be summed up in one word: Iraq. While resolutions flew back and forth at the United Nations, and calls for and against war echoed around the world, Paris and Berlin emerged as the biggest critics of Washington’s policy. The result was a campaign of character assassination by U.S. officials and pro-war corners of the media, which insiders compared to putting the two European leaders through fire.
The experience forged a bond between the two statesmen. The joining of the two nations on a higher level came later when they celebrated the 40th anniversary of the Elysée Treaty, the resumption of diplomatic ties after World War II, in January and grabbed that opportunity to push the relationship forward into a more intimate future.
Now, in the wake of the war, Franco-German relations are tighter than ever before, with consultations between the two nations at an unprecedented level. There are ministerial meetings between the two countries every six weeks, the governments hold joint cabinet meetings, and even have civil servants in each other's ministries. So, when Jacques Chirac speaks for Germany on Friday, it will be a historical peak in an increasingly close and important axis.
A strong political signal
With differences in the past, the Franco-German axis is comfortable and strong.
"This underlines how close we are," one Berlin official said. "If Germany should have any input to make for Friday's conclusions, President Chirac will present them." Another official was more succinct: "Gerhard trusts Jacques."
"It's a show of closeness," Henrik Uterwedde of the German-French Institute, a think-tank on bilateral relations, told Reuters. "Chirac will perhaps two or three times make a show of saying 'And by the way, my friend Schröder says so and so' ... If you like, it's a gimmick, but it's also a very strong political signal."
Meanwhile, European Commission President Romano Prodi hailed the move. "It is another step towards overcoming narrow nationalism. I am totally in favor of it," Prodi told reporters on Wednesday. He added that it may not be the last time one leader represents more than one country.
A changing Europe
Gerhard Schröder with Romano Prodi in Berlin.
"It may well be a system that we will see repeated. We're in a changing Europe, where certain traditional barriers might be breaking down... OK, it's France and Germany this time. But I don't view this as a little group being distinct from everyone else. These people are doing it perfectly innocently," Prodi said.
However, others were far less charitable. Hans-Gert Pöttering, a German member of the European Parliament who leads the center-right European People's Party, said that Schröder was showing contempt for his European commitments and risked making Germany a "lame duck on the European political stage."
MEP calls Schröder's maneuver risky
Pöttering called the move a "risky maneuver" which "recalled the politics of the empty chair," a strategy employed by former French President Charles de Gaulle, who in 1965 withdrew France's representatives from meetings in protest at a plan to increase the EU's budget.
Other German MEPs took a more tongue-in-cheek approach to the controversy. Elmar Brok, from the German opposition party the Christian Democratic Union, told the daily Die Welt, "Anyway, German interests will be better served by the French president than the chancellor."
Yet to rival Mitterrand and Kohl
Former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl
But political analysts said that despite the apparent closeness of Schröder and Chirac, it was way too early to compare the current Franco-German axis to its heyday under their predecessors, Francois Mitterrand and Helmut Kohl.
"Schröder and Chirac haven't yet had comparable challenges to tackle as Kohl and Mitterrand had with the decision to introduce the euro. Let's see what happens in the coming years," said Joachim Schild of the Science and Politics Foundation in Berlin, according to Reuters.