The oft-lauded Franco-German friendship is no longer so important, according to French Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, a potential presidential candidate in 2007. But there are still advantages to the partnership.
A little too chummy?
There's no question about it: The Franco-German friendship, thanks to a historic reconciliation sealed by the Elysee Treaty in 1963, has taken on romantic overtones in recent times.
Who -- especially among young people -- still speaks about reconciliation? Who even refers to the archrivalry of the past centuries between the two countries? Who can say today why only these two countries should play a special role among the European Union's 25 members?
For many years, politicians from both France and Germany have searching for new expressions to conceal the powerlessness of their alliance: Nobody wants to talk about an "axis" because the word has historically negative connotations.
Instead, the Franco-German wedding is associated with words like "crisis" and "divorce." The much-touted motor is sputtering because there's a lack of fuel; When it comes to working in tandem, question marks still hover over who's in the driving seat; If you talk about the locomotive, the question arises as to why the train's compartments only travel behind without being able to determine the direction.
Too much symbolism?
France and Germany have a problem: In the permanent search for symbols, they overlook the fact that globalization -- and the rebuilding of Europe is a form of globalization -- cannot be regulated nationally or even in a binational way, but rather in a multinational fashion. Or, in other words, globally.
It's not the symbolic gestures -- that were undoubtedly very important 40 years ago -- that help to define a European identity today, but rather the pragmatism of a common policy for all citizens of Europe in all fields.
Nicolas Sarkozy is right when he says that the special partnership is not valid anymore. Who drives with a two-stroke engine nowadays? But he is wrong if he believes that Europe doesn't need the experience that comes from Franco-German cooperation anymore.
Remember the 23 other members
Nor is the French interior minister the first to call into question the uniqueness of the friendship. Francois Mitterrand had, before he became president in 1981, signaled that the friendship between his predecessor Valery Giscard d'Estaing and then Chancellor Helmut Schmidt would not be a model for him. During his 14 years in office, he, along with Chancellor Helmut Kohl, discovered a new dimension for the friendship.
Even German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, after being elected in 1998, believed that a "third way" with London was much more promising than a liaison with Paris. But the American war in Iraq, which neither France nor Germany were a part of, drew the two neighboring countries back together.
Neither Nicolas Sarkozy -- should he become French president in 2007 -- nor Angela Merkel -- should she become German chancellor -- can ignore more than 40 years of history.
But with an eye towards the future of Europe, neither of them wants to annoy the other 23 partners of the union. However, if the new joint leadership role of Germany, France, Italy, Britain, Spain and maybe Poland -- as Sarkozy has considered -- is to replace the Franco-German motor, a European hierarchy could arise -- at the cost of the smaller EU states.
The solution doesn't lie in giving up the special partnership, but instead in mutually respecting the rest of the EU partners without staking any claims to leadership. But, here there will be a need for a motor that doesn't yet exist -- and in times of need, a two-stroke engine helps anyway.