Like the Balkan wars of the 1990s, the Russian invasion of Georgia reveals Europe’s weakness and disunity in crisis. In fact, many of the debates that have separated the Bush administration from various European governments have also divided European governments from each other, with disagreements on a range of issues like Iran, terrorism, Russia, and the Mediterranean Union. The underlying tension between French president Nicolas Sarkozy and German chancellor Angela Merkel throws the growing schism into sharp relief.
Consider Sarkozy’s proposal for a Mediterranean Union that would be similar to the European Union and would boost cooperation among European, North African, and Middle Eastern governments. When he first began promoting the idea in 2007, the union was to include only countries that bordered the Mediterranean Sea. The exclusion of Germany caused Merkel to object strongly, calling the plan “very dangerous” and fearing it would undermine the EU and erode Berlin’s strategic clout. After some passionate negotiating—Sarkozy adviser Henri Guaino told the Financial Times that “there was a lively debate, a very intense, stormy discussion,” and EU diplomats were quoted elsewhere as saying that Sarkozy and Merkel “had quite a fight”—French and German officials agreed to include all 27 EU countries. But suspicions linger in Berlin and elsewhere that Sarkozy’s true goal in forming the union was to expand France’s sphere of influence at Germany’s expense.
There are broader worries across Europe that Paris will use its six-month tenure as EU president—which began on July 1—in the service of French national interests. Sarkozy has proved to be audacious, and at times unpredictable. Whereas Merkel has consistently embraced multilateralism, the French president has shown a greater penchant for national initiatives. He has also moved France closer to the U.S. positions on Iran and terrorism.
Sarkozy has been distinctly more hawkish on Iran than Merkel, describing the threat of a nuclear Iran as the world’s “most serious” crisis. Last August, he caused a stir by declaring that a policy of tough sanctions and incentives “is the only one that can enable us to avoid being faced with an alternative that I call catastrophic: an Iranian bomb or the bombing of Iran.” Germany has recently edged nearer to the French position, but it has traditionally been more resistant to harsh economic sanctions, given the extensiveness of German business interests in Iran. For a period of time in 2007, when Washington and Paris pushed for robust sanctions, Berlin hedged.
Sarkozy has also been more vocal and aggressive on terrorism. In mid-June, the French government released a new defense policy directive, its first since 1994, which announced the creation of a new defense and national security council and a new national intelligence council, both chaired by the president; advocated “the full participation of France in the structures of NATO”; called for an EU defense force of 60,000 deployable troops; and stressed the need for enhanced anti-terrorism coordination. In a speech marking the white paper’s release, Sarkozy said that “the most immediate threat” to France “is that of a terrorist attack.”
The defense review sparked a critical reaction from Sarkozy’s domestic political opponents. “It’s a very Bush-like vision, very American—with a new concept of national security. It puts the entire defense sector in the hands of the president, but also civil security and the police,” one Socialist deputy told the Daily Telegraph. Sarkozy has also promised to send several hundred additional French combat troops to Afghanistan.
In contrast, Merkel has placed less rhetorical emphasis on fighting terrorism and seemed less committed to the NATO campaign in Afghanistan. Prior to meeting with Barack Obama last month, Merkel urged a lowering of U.S. expectations on Afghanistan. “I will make clear that we are not shirking our responsibilities for engagement, but I will also make the limits very clear, just as I have done with the current president,” she said. As in many other areas—including Iran—Merkel has been constrained by left-wing Social Democrats within her broad governing coalition.
The same goes for her Russia policy. After Russia’s attack on Georgia, Merkel’s immediate reaction, like Barack Obama’s, was to avoid assigning blame to the Russians. Prime Minister Berlusconi’s policy followed the same path. British Labour MP Denis MacShane, who was U.K. minister for Europe under Tony Blair, dismissed Merkel and Berlusconi in a Daily Telegraph op-ed as “right-wing leaders ... [who] appear to want to give Putin the benefit of the doubt.” In contrast, the Balts, the Poles, and the Swedes have been Georgia’s most steadfast allies in the EU. After their visit of solidarity to Georgia this week, the Estonian, Lithuanian, and Polish presidents and the Latvian prime minister offered a joint statement that effectively criticized the EU-led peace initiative brokered by President Sarkozy for failing to address “the principal element—the respect of [the] territorial integrity of Georgia.” In Tbilisi on Tuesday, Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt sounded surprisingly like John McCain, noting that “Russia will sooner or later have to pay a high price” for her action.
Russia remains an especially difficult question; but it is only one of many hot-button issues on which Europe is divided. For example: Britain favors Turkish membership in the EU, while France and Germany are fiercely opposed. On global trade expansion and the Doha Round, Merkel and Gordon Brown have been devoted free traders, while Sarkozy has been more protectionist (drawing the ire of EU trade chief Peter Mandelson). Merkel and Sarkozy have also sparred over the European Central Bank. Not surprisingly, NATO expansion and European military cooperation remain stubbornly divisive. As for global warming and slashing carbon emissions, there is even less harmony, with France at the head of the protectionist group that recognizes the need to preserve jobs in energy-intensive industries.
Unfortunately, ever since Franco-German opposition to the Iraq war was portrayed as “European” opposition—never mind that Britain, Spain, Italy, Denmark, Poland, and other countries supported the invasion—the American media have treated Europe as a monolith. That is misleading, as the next U.S. president will swiftly discover. The true measure of European foreign policy unity should be judged on the basis of coherence under pressure. After Georgia, it has once again been found deeply lacking.