France does not want to admit the Central Europeans - Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia - into the house of Europe; Germany is traditionally the sugar daddy of these young democracies; but Germany's marriage to France is, and will remain, the axis around which the machinery of Europe revolves. With the start of Germany's EU presidency on 1 July, to be followed by France's on 1 January, the couple have now embarked on a year's consecutive and co-ordinated presidencies of the Union.
As a senior German envoy said: 'We will not do anything to upset the French at this time.' A French diplomat added: 'You must understand that we do not go to bed with the Germans for the pleasure of it, but out of necessity.'
Many in France retain their traditional aversion to enlarging the Union to the east, which they suspect is a Britannic ploy to dilute the powers of the EU. Contrary to traditional wisdom, Germany has its own reasons for not expanding the EU beyond its eastern borders.
One of the main immediate goals of the joint presidency is to get Chancellor Helmut Kohl re- elected this autumn. That means not upsetting the German taxpayer. Admitting the East Europeans raises the prospects of greatly increased taxes. Furthermore, both German and French diplomats point out, effective decision- making is hard enough a douze - as the world has witnessed in the circus surrounding the choice of a successor to Jacques Delors. It will be harder still if the people of the three would-be Scandinavian entrants emulate Austria by voting in favour of joining later this year. 'Can you imagine what the row about the succession to Delors would have been like if the membership goes up to 20?' said a German official.
But the mistresses are getting restive; five years after they were set free from their Communist masters, they would like a proper home. Yet their German protectors have made it increasingly clear they will not be allowed to move in during this century. A Polish academic speculated recently that the delay was the result of yet another of the frequent marriage crises between Paris and Bonn, which the Germans are determined not to make any worse than it need be.
There are several dangers here: one is that the Four, in the so- called Visegrad group, fall out among themselves. They are already tense from being lumped into the same permanent waiting- room, despite the fact that Poland and the Czech Republic are arguably stable enough be allowed in before the other two. Hungary and Slovakia still have considerable problems over minorities and borders. Allowing the other two to jump the queue might encourage Budapest and Bratislava to resolve those conflicts more quickly.
Things got so bad during a visit by President Bill Clinton to the waiting-room six months ago that the Czech government refused to use the name Visegrad group and insisted on sitting at a separate table from the other three.
The other danger is that, failing an equal economic and security partnership with Europe, the Four will look increasingly towards a marriage of convenience with Russia. There have already been hints of that in Poland, with President Lech Walesa complaining that the West 'does not understand' him. The Russian export markets are easier for the Central Europeans to penetrate, given the superiority of their products.
German officials may pooh- pooh that prospect for now: 'Why should they want a security arrangement with Russia?' one asked. 'Whom do they need this security to protect them against? Us?' None the less, everybody needs a homestead. With left-wing governments in place in Poland and Hungary, a partnership with an increasingly aggressive Russia is worth worrying about.
Today is the French Republic's birthday; the day after, the two partners will seek to install their latest federalist stooge, Jacques Santer, at the helm of the Commission. Earlier this week, the Germans had yet another coming-of- age celebration in the shape of Mr Clinton's first visit to Berlin.
A grudging spousal kiss for Germany came yesterday from the French newspaper, Liberation: 'The new Federal Republic of Germany looks much like the old one. But the old tune that the economic giant is a political dwarf, long disproved, is on the way out'.Reuse content