Confidence and sadness about changing axes in Europe

23 May 2013 - 10:07

The UK is turning its back towards the continental powers, the Franco-German axis is in decline and Poland is the new kid on the EU-block. The Netherlands stands by and watches the traditional alliances fade away. The power shifts in Europe were discussed at the Clingendael Institute on May 22. 

Historically, the Franco-German axis has been the driving force of European integration, but the Eurocrisis and the election of the socialist president Francois Hollande resulted in a more difficult relation between Paris and Berlin. At the same time, the United Kingdom seems to drift away from the continent. The UK's decision not to join the fiscal compact and the famous Cameron speech in which he announced the wish to renegotiate EU membership are worrying signals. The power equilibrium of 'the big 3' is broken. 'Then Poland comes in', said Roderick Parkes, head of the EU program of the Polish Institute of International Affairs, reflecting on the question raised by Jan Marinus Wiersma, senior visiting fellow at Clingendael: ‘Is the Franco-German axis kaputt?’. 

Four phases

Parkes pointed out that the role of Poland has changed enormously and in the last five years the country's power position within the EU went through four phases. Poland started as a difficult partner, known for its blocking behaviour. Then it made a dramatic shift turning into a 'catch-up power', wanting to be included in the club. The third phase was characterized by a 'bridging role' when Poland positioned itself between the insiders of 'Old Europe' and the eurozone and non-euro zone and (relatively) new member states. Now, Poland has become a close partner of Germany.

Poland ties itself very closely to Germany because it is the guarantor of Polish inclusion, especially in EMU, Parkes explained. Poland considers itself a pre-member of the Eurozone and supports the harsh austerity policy of Germany. However, the way the measures are negotiated between the heads of government of the most powerful member states cannot count on the same amount of Polish sympathy. Now that France has taken a different course within EMU, Poland is sticking to Germany in the hope that Merkel will turn east towards the new reliable partner after the 'real end' of the Franco-German tandem, Parkes added. 'This development will strenghten the cohesion within the EU.'
 

German strength

Hanco Jürgens, senior researcher at the German Institute in the Netherlands, said that the German power should not be overestimated. One of the reasons why Germany is perceived as the new European hegemon is because the national policy goals coincide with the European ones. The plans set out by former German Bundeskanzler Gerhard Schroder introduced his Hartz IV Reform Agenda in the early 2000's are now the basis of the EU agenda. 'This is of great importance', Jürgens said. Other member states have problems recognizing their own agenda within the EU. Not Germany. However, ' Germany should take the concerns of these member states seriously'.

Jürgens made clear that Germany is pushed in a powerful position against its own will. He also mentioned that the 'German agenda of austerity' should be seen as a political agenda instead of a national policy - as an agenda of liberal economics versus the problematic socialist agenda of the French leading party. 

Lonely Dutch 

In the context of these developments, the Dutch find themselves more and more alone within the EU, Rene Cuperus said. The senior researcher of the social-democrat Wiardi Beckman Foundation pointed out that the shifting powers are not a positive development for Dutch policy makers. For many decades, they found themselves comfortably nested between the Germans, the French and the Britons (and Americans). This changed after the French, who were always opposing the Anglo-Saxons, felt 'stabbed in the back' by the Germans, and the UK was given a 'cold shoulder' after it presented its EU reform agenda. The Belgians are no reliable partner either, Cuperus added, as they are 'completely obsessed' with its own internal North-South division and have a completely different attitude towards the EU'.

So what to do? Cuperus did not have the answer. He warned the audience that The Netherlands cannot simply turn to Germany for support as 'there is a huge difference in the way the EU is perceived'. Germany is seen as a loyal partner, but while their economy is booming, our economic situation is very poor. In The Netherlands populism and scepticism is booming, while in Germany it is still insignificant. 'Although I think a real clash of the voters still has to come, the SPD and the CDU aren't the strong pillars they used to be', Cuperus said. The Netherlands is suffering from Triple A-blues: Like Finland, The Netherlands is a net payer, but we don't get political power in return, like Germany does. 'This makes us a very unhappy Triple A country'.

Cuperus emphasized that the north-south divide is not black and white and should be problematized. In all member states support for the EU is dropping. All member states perceive themselves as a victim of the crisis. There are serious societal problems, such as the working poor, in The Netherlands, while in Southern European countries very rich people are not suffering. This is well-known and well-covered by the media here. 'A re-election of Berlusconi is the end of solidarity within the eurozone'. How can you explain the Dutch taxpayers that the guy who destroyed the Italian economy is back in the government again?

Debate

During the discussion more views were exchanged on the status of the Franco-German axis, the repositioning of The Netherlands and the potential entry of Poland in the Eurozone. The debate on shifting powers in the EU continues here at our website. Follow us on Twitter or subscribe to our newsletter to read more.

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