Paris and Berlin are considering plans for a "union of France and Germany" which would allow the two allies, and ancient enemies, to merge their foreign and defence polities and co-operate more closely on education and the economy.
The idea, which would stop well short of a single state with one leader and political system, is seen as a way of creating an indissoluble, "hard" core for the European Union when it expands to 25 member states next year. Although vaguely discussed for many years, the idea of a Franco-German union has been urged recently in private conversations by Jean-Pierre Raffarin, the French Prime Minister, and Dominique de Villepin, the Foreign Minister, the French newspaperLe Monde reported yesterday.
M. De Villepin said that a Franco-German union was "the only historic gamble that we cannot possibly lose".
The leaking of the idea, which has reportedly been discussed by Berlin and Paris at the highest levels, may be intended to strengthen the joint Franco-German position in the final round of discussions on the proposed, new EU constitution. It also responds to widespread fears in both countries that the EU will turn into a looser and more unwieldy organisation upon enlargement, in which France and Germany will no longer play the dominant role.
How the idea would play in Britain, if it proceeds, is unclear. It could be seized upon by Eurosceptics as a proof of French and German federal ambitions. Alternatively, it could be seen as a sign that Paris and Berlin see no realistic prospect of the "pan-European superstate" of Eurosceptic nightmares.
On the other hand, the Government and pro-European British politicians may be alarmed by the new signs of Franco-German rapprochement. A merger of their foreign and defence policies would implicitly exclude Britain from the inner core of European decision-making.
Earlier this year, President Jacques Chirac said that French and German "cultures should come closer together so that, through an effort of mutual comprehension and respect, we can arrive at genuine union". At the same time - the 40th anniversary of the treaty on Franco-German friendship - the French and German EU commissioners suggested that the two countries should have a joint army, budget and economic policy. Last month, M. Chirac spoke, symbolically, on behalf of Germany at an EU summit.
These suggestions and gestures were dismissed at the time as romantic and rhetorical froth. But Le Monde reported yesterday that the idea of a Franco-German union was gaining ground, partly because of the new, closer relationship between M. Chirac and Chancellor Gerhard Schröder since they supported each other in rejecting the US-led invasion of Iraq in March.
Pascal Lamy, one of two EU commissioners from France, said yesterday that a Franco-German "bund", or federation, would be a "good antidote" to any loosening of an enlarged, 25-nation EU. He warned that "public opinion" in the two countries was "not ready for" the idea but suggested, nonetheless, that Paris and Berlin should consider creating a "federal budget" for defence, foreign policy and research.
Significantly, there has been no mention of a joint political structure, joint government, joint president or joint elections.
Christoph Bertram, director of the SWP foreign policy think-tank in Berlin, said yesterday that Chancellor Schröder was in favour of a closer Franco-German union but the prospect was not so well received by German politicians as a whole.
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