France and Germany regain reins as Britain leaves EU economic lane

BRUSSELS – Britain has long played a special role within the European Union, as a nuclear power and permanent member of the United Nations Security Council that had Washington’s ear. It was also a budget hawk who insisted on keeping the spending of the bloc in check.

Some EU officials were worried that leaving the UK would weaken a union that had been under pressure since the British voted to leave in 2016. That vote confronted the EU with the risk of disintegration and strengthened the hand of Euroseptic movements from Italy to Hungary.

Instead, as the UK prepares to leave the EU’s economic path on 1 January, the UK regains confidence, helped in part by a revived Franco-German partnership and encouraged by the expected arrival of the Biden government in Washington. Meanwhile, Paris, now the dominant foreign policy actor, is driving the debate on everything from relations with Washington and Moscow to the expansion of the EU’s military capabilities.

Last week’s Brexit agreement must be approved by EU governments on Tuesday and by the British Parliament on Wednesday to implement it for the time being. The European Parliament will consider the 1,246-page agreement, published on Saturday for the first time in the new year. Top EU lawmakers from the largest parties in the bloc have already welcomed the agreement.

During several years of brutal Brexit talks, many feared that a failure by the EU and the UK to reach an agreement on their future relations could poison bilateral ties, which could jeopardize even Britain’s contributions to European security. threatened – from the Baltic states to anti-terrorism. campaign in the Sahel in Africa.

Britain’s swing on the continent, which has long been a useful channel for Washington to influence EU trade, tax and foreign policy priorities, is dwindling. However, the agreement between Britain and the EU on Thursday on future economic, trade and security ties should prevent a permanent rift between US European allies.

Opinion polls show that British political crises have lifted support for EU membership elsewhere since the referendum. Many populist anti-EU champions are now calling for the bloc to be reviewed, rather than stopped.

This year, the EU agreed to a major recovery fund to help the bloc recover from its coronavirus crash – a deal that was unthinkable a few years ago. With a Brexit agreement currently in the bag, some officials believe the EU has taken a turn.

“We have shown that when we are really under pressure, we get things done,” Michael Clauss, the German ambassador to the EU, said in December. “So we have taken on the challenges and therefore we all also feel psychologically that we are now in a stronger position.”

At the heart of the eurozone’s revival is the Franco – German partnership, which became strong with the exit of the only EU member state that was economically and strategically equal.

Only a year ago, France and Germany appeared together on many of Europe’s biggest challenges.

A British Royal Air Force fighter jet took part in the NATO exercises in January 2020.


johanna geron / Reuters

Germany has watered down most of French President Emmanuel Macron’s comprehensive proposals to reform the eurozone, France has blocked EU enlargement, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has backed down criticism of Mr. Macron on the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, while Berlin was wary of Paris’ efforts. to thaw ties with Russia.

That changed this spring.

In May, Merkel proposed to the European Commission, the EU’s executive, to issue debts to fund a bailout package that would distribute hundreds of billions of euros to member states to help them. during the pandemic.

Two months later, the EU agreed on a € 750 billion program, equivalent to $ 920 billion.

If the UK were still an EU member, the bloc would be able to pull Britain out of the fund. Yet British lawmakers would be required to give new executive fiscal powers to the EU executive, something they would have been reluctant to do.

“The underlying conflict in the EU has not disappeared. Removing just one actor … can mean that there is one less source of conflict. This does not mean that we are capable of making leaps in integration. ‘

– Fabian Zuleeg, CEO of the European Policy Center in Brussels

With Britain’s exit, France, also a nuclear force and a veto member of the UN Security Council, is one of the few European countries with a global military presence and willingness to use it.

Mr. Macron has launched a program of strategic autonomy, which includes building military capabilities to make the EU work independently of major powers such as China and the US. With Berlin, he seeks to strengthen the EU’s defense sector and provide stronger protection for critical industries.

France has drawn a hard line in a growing conflict between the EU and Turkey over natural gas resources and the military movements of Ankara in its vicinity. Mr. Macron continued his outreach to Moscow despite the poisoning of opposition leader Alexei Navalny.

There is caution about mr. Macron’s policies in some parts of the bloc, especially any steps that undermine NATO. But without Britain, these worries are being dispelled.

“As far as European defense is concerned, it comes out in a very French way,” said Ian Bond, director of foreign policy at the Center for European Reform. “Strategic autonomy would not have come as far as the British were still at the table.”

For Washington, it could create challenges, even as EU leaders say they are eager to work with President-elect Joe Biden. For years, the UK has blocked EU efforts for fear of undermining or duplicating NATO’s work. Britain also became a much sharper critic of China and would probably have pushed the EU into close coordination with the US over the challenges posed by Beijing.

Instead, the EU is postponing a middle position. Brussels recently launched a formal dialogue with the US on China. However, the EU, which is driven by Berlin, is currently close to concluding a broad investment agreement with Beijing, which heeded the warning from Mr. Biden’s team provokes.

Doubts about the strength and endurance of the revived Franco-German partnership are gnawing at the EU’s renewed confidence.

Paris and Berlin are still divided over eurozone reforms, a weakness that officials fear could be vulnerable to a new financial or banking crisis in the single currency zone. EU power stations have managed to end differences over the bloc’s migration policy or heal a toxic gap between east and west over the application of the rule of law and democratic freedoms.

Next year, me. Merkel, chancellor for a decade and a half, is retiring. Some see a new period of uncertainty, even though German diplomats insist that Berlin’s European policy will not change much.

“The underlying conflicts in the EU have not disappeared,” said Fabian Zuleeg, chief executive of the European Policy Center in Brussels. ‘Removing just one actor … may mean that there is one less source of conflict. This does not mean that we are capable of making leaps in integration. ”

Write to Laurence Norman by [email protected]

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