“NATO has no role at all to be saying what Europe’s relations with Russia should be. For France, Russia is not an adversary, not a threat,” these words by French President Francois Hollande as he landed in Warsaw to attend the alliance’s summit meeting on July 8-9 bring home the undercurrents in European politics following Brexit.
Hollande had multiple objectives when he spoke up. Indeed, he indirectly voiced resentment over the US pushing the envelope as regards Europe’s troubled relations with Russia. Principally, he drew attention to France’s intention to be a pre-eminent voice in Europe, although the old “special relationship” with Germany is not the force it used to be, and France has become very much the weaker party.
Of course, Hollande had one eye back home at French politics, mindful of his low popularity rating (13%). The former president Nicolas Sarkozy is emerging as one of the contenders for the right-wing ticket in the presidential election next year, riding on a nationalistic platform at a time when 61% of French voters are hostile to the European Union.
But uppermost on Hollande’s mind would have been what the Berlin Policy Journal called with prescience last September “Germany’s Unipolar Moment”. The point is, Germany has been steadily rising as the de facto leader of Europe:
The Greece debt deal was essentially a bilateral affair between Berlin and Athens, the Ukraine ceasefire was hammered out by Chancellor Angela Merkel and Russian President Vladimir Putin, and on the current refugee crisis Germany is leading both by example and by calling for a common EU response. (Berlin Policy Journal)
Germany has been reticent about playing the role of hegemonic power in Europe. But that may be changing. A German ‘surge’ is already visible in the downstream of Brexit. Germany is self-conscious that its political and economic weight in Europe has dramatically increased. (With Britain’s exit, Germany’s share of the European Union GDP would rise from around one-fifth to a quarter.)
On the other hand, national antagonisms in Europe that bred two world wars never really disappeared. They are surfacing in reaction to Germany’s demand for a “stronger Europe”. Sarkozy has been quoted byLe Figaro newspaper as saying, “If the response to Brexit is an even more German Europe, then we are driving into a brick wall.” He advocates a “Europe of the nations” – a weakened EU in favour of the national states.
The French politicians across the political spectrum have been speaking in nationalist and anti-German tones – from the extreme right-wing National Front leader Marine Le Pen to the leader of the French Left Party, Jean-Luc Mélenchon.
Meanwhile, in Central Europe too, there is growing demand for a redrafting of the EU treaties to devolve power to the national states. Poland feels threatened by Germany. On Thursday, the pro-government newspaper Gazeta Polska appeared with the headline, Will there be a Fourth Reich? together with a Swastika on the front page.
Hollande’s sharp remark yesterday in Warsaw betrays wariness over a new axis taking shape between Germany and the United States, which would leave France out in the cold. Angela Merkel has been manifestly eager to collaborate with the US’ transatlantic leadership. President Barack Obama counts on her to rally the EU to impose sanctions against Russia.
In the aftermath of Brexit, Washington too needs an axis with Germany, now that Britain is retreating from Europe. The US enjoys close ties with New Europe, which also enables it to be the arbiter between Germany and Poland. Over and above, it is in the US’ supreme interests that it forestalls a German-Russian axis.
The bottom line is that NATO is central to the US’ containment strategy against Russia, and the western alliance system might come to devolve upon a US-German axis in the near term.
Interestingly, Putin had a telephonic conversation with Hollande and Merkel just before they left for the Warsaw summit, regarding Ukraine, which is the leitmotif of the NATO’s “defence and deterrence” strategy against Russia that has been choreographed by Washington.
Putin underscored that the so-called Normandy Format is adequate enough to tamp down tensions over Ukraine – implying that NATO didn’t really have to have a role here. Interestingly, Hollande said in Warsaw much the same thing. (Kremlin website)