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Europe

Is Europe's Motor Forever Stalled?

Recent political events in France and Germany underscore the weakness of the alliance provides the motor of Europe's economy. Is the EU polticially hamstrung?

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Schröder, Chirac: Have they thrown Europe's power out the window?

France's rejection of the EU constitution strikes a further damaging blow to its already waning influence in the bloc, only a week after long-time EU partner Germany was thrown into turmoil.

Frankreiche EU-Referendum Bundeskanzler Gerhard Schröder Kampagne

Despite Schröder's campaigning in Toulouse for French ratification of the EU constitution, the 'no's had it.

Indeed, the French "no" vote Sunday and German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's defeat in a key state election the previous weekend threaten an all-out stall for Europe's already sputtering Franco-German motor.

"What the result means is that the Franco-German axis is in serious trouble. It's the end of a phase which began in 2002," said Charles Powell, senior researcher at the Elcano Royal Institute think tank in Madrid.

Cabinet reshuffle: De Villepin as premier

Less than half an hour after the rejection of the treaty, aimed at improving decision making in the 25-member bloc, was announced, even an embarrassed French President Jacques Chirac acknowledged there would be trouble ahead.

Der französische Präsident Jaques Chirac und sein Außenminister Dominique de Villepin

Dominique de Villepin and Chirac

He promised to defend the country before EU leaders at their summit on June 16-17, but added, "let us make no mistake, France's decision inevitably creates a difficult context for the defense of our interests in Europe."

On Tuesday, Chirac also reacted to the vote by appointing Dominique de Villepin as his new prime minister in a major government reshuffle. Villepin, the 51-year-old former foreign minister who earned a worldwide reputation for his impassioned defense of France's opposition to the US-led war in Iraq, replaces the deeply unpopular Jean-Pierre Raffarin.

Raffarin was named prime minister in 2002, upon President Jacques Chirac's re-election to a second term. Villepin had served as the country's interior minister until Tuesday.

Chirac, like many French citizens, is extremely proud of France's role as a founding member of an integrated Europe. Other EU states have rejected treaties -- Denmark said no to the Maastricht treaty in 1992, and Ireland initially snubbed the Nice Treaty in 2001 -- but France is another matter.

Lack of sympathy

"France is complicating the construction of Europe. So there is no reason for anyone to feel any particular sympathy for the country," said EU Transport Commissioner Jacques Barrot.

Across the border and the political spectrum, Schröder has been leading the other half of the EU's driving force, but he has been severely weakened by an election reversal in Germany's most populous state this month.

EU Flagge

EU Flag

This coupled with economic strife and high unemployment, as in France, has forced him to put his job on the line through snap national polls expected possibly as soon as September.

"We can't expect any major impulse for Europe from this duo soon," said Henrik Uterwedde, deputy diretor at the German-French institute in Ludwigsburg, Germany. They have lost the "ability to attract majorities" for their proposals.

Waning political power

According to Alfred Grosser, a French political science and history expert, Chirac and Schröder have been widely discredited by recent events.

"They will be severely weakened in the eyes of the other member states at the European Union summit in mid-June," he said.

EU-Referendum Frankreich Präsident Jacques Chirac pessimistisch abwartend ängstlich

Jacques Chirac campaigned in favor of ratification, to no avail

The German parliament finally ratified the treaty on Friday, while the French people decided whether it should be adopted. But Uterwedde said the choice of methods had made a great deal of difference.

"The fears that surfaced during the debate in France are not foreign to us," he said. Had a referendum taken place in Germany "the discussion would have gone exactly the same way."

" Europe is broken down"

But according to French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier, the vote on Sunday sent his country off on a different path to that of its eastern neighbor.

"This is the first time in 50 years that the French and Germans have diverged in Europe on a fundamental issue," he said on French television. "Without this constitution, Europe is broken down politically."

Barnier added the Franco-German concept of the EU is in danger of being replaced by a "much more liberal Europe, one big supermarket."

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