Monday, September 01, 2003
Navigating Division - 1st September 2003, 22.20

Dominique Villepin is exerting his muscles in order to find a new equilibrium in which the divisions between the United States and certain former European allies can be accommodated. His latest strategy, raised during a speech to France's collected diplomatic corps, involved the possibility of a new Charter, setting out the ideological differences that divide France and America. As this was couched in the language of European diplomacy, one can view this speech as directed at three particular audiences: an attempt to set the agenda for other continental countries and deter Germany from taking up any of Berlusconi's curious proposals; a desire to demonstrate that France is willing to take diplomatic steps to heal the rift with the United States to a domestic audience; and showing our cousins across the water that France will enjoy setting out various diplomatic ideas, knowing that none will ever be accepted across the Pond.

"We are in a new strategic environment and certain fundamental elements of our relationship have changed," he said. "Our response to threats may differ on points; our conception of the role of the UN is not always the same."

This troubled climate demanded a fresh approach to improving relations. "We have a new history to write," he said. "Perhaps the moment has come to base a new European-American partnership on a transatlantic charter."

The document would set out a new framework for dialogue, highlight areas where cooperation could be better, and "improve procedures for the better management of differences", as well as promoting better contacts between politicians, business leaders and intellectuals.

There does not appear to have been any effort to link this kite with the original Charter upon which all European and American cooperation has been based. The values of the Atlantic Charter are insufficient to warrant interventions but it is hard to see what the French would replace them with. It is noteworthy that the Atlantic Charter appears to uphold the value system that has been used to justify the war in Iraq, perhaps demonstrating that this rhetoric has become a tradition.

Defence is becoming one of the biggest headaches for the European Union. France, Germany, Belgium and Luxembourg have continued to plan for a separate EU defence identity based upon a solidarity clause defending members from mutual aggression and breaking the transatlantic link. Villepin's call for a new Charter can also be understood in the context of French ambitions to recast its fading power in the new clothes of the European Union.

Britain has brought forward a paper designed to undermine the ambitions of the "gang of four" and their defence revolution at the invitation of Berlusconi. To the disgruntlement of France, Britain has proposed that all military cooperation should be routed through the NATO headquarters in Belgium (or wherever it is located to) where planning would be coordinated with SHAPE. This is shaping up to be a real test of the Franco-German axis pitching them against the Atlanticists and the neutrals within the European Union. The smaller countries have already had a taste of French bullying over the CAP and may decide to give them a bloody nose when its an issue that really matters: national defence.


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