In a commentary last year on the eve of the celebrations of the 50th anniversary of the Élysée Treaty I wondered to what extent the notion of ‘the Franco-German axis’ was still a useful framework to analyse politics in Europe. I argued that in the course of the euro crisis, economic and monetary policies in Europe have become an issue of political majorities along party families rather than of axes such as the Franco-German. Much was at stake in rescuing the euro, I argued, and political leaders travelling to European summits were forced to be increasingly responsive to their electorates—which I believed was good news for democracy. Forget about the Franco-German axis and embrace party politics as a sign of political maturity of the European Union.
I have been challenging myself on this point over the past months on various occasions and, what can I say, I am not at all convinced. As much as those small pockets of europeanised party strategists would like to see it, there is no real alignment of the European left yet, determined to jointly win back majorities to shape a ‘social Europe’ as the new eurozone is in the making. Neither is there a solid conservative bulwark led by the German chancellor to europeanise the notorious Swabian housewife. Rather, the strategies that governments embrace these days in navigating the crisis reflect a much wider repertoire. And while it seems that the old and rather predictable game of summits, axes and treaty reforms is over, the rules of the new game are yet to be written.
In the German context, Peer Steinbrück, the social democratic candidate for the 2013 general elections, is far from leading Europe’s socialists in the reconstruction of the eurozone. Indeed for tactical reasons he chose not to even try and challenge Angela Merkel in what has become her domaine réservé. Or might he be pulling the strings behind Hollande, and the French Left is doing the messy job for him now? (Trying to undermine Merkel from the outside is likely to have the opposite effect, but quite frankly I don’t believe in the existence of such witty tactics anyway). Martin Schulz, recently branded “an extension of Adenauer by social democratic means” with a whiff of respect by, of all papers, the conservative daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung is in his ambition to become the joint candidate of Europe’s social democrats for the next president of the European Commission, doing a much better job. However, Schulz has just disappointed those looking for order on the Paris angle by seconding Angela Merkel when she was personally accused by leading French socialists of dominating and ultimately destroying Europe.
I still stick to the observation that in the course of the crisis, European Union affairs have been politicised to an unprecedented degree. Party politics matter. But for those (including myself) who predicted that the rather predictable old order (‘the Franco-German axis’ ‘the net contributors versus the recipients’, ‘the Weimar Triangle’ etc.) would make way to a similarly predictable order formed along political colours and ideologies have been proven wrong.
The truth is: things have become utterly mazy and therefore rather unpredictable. Now it is for Europe’s great minds to make sense of the new rules of the European power game, of political colours and ideologies, of institutional quarrels (prominently featuring the Commission president these days), of reflexes of national pride, of the new power of domestic constraints, of old balance-of-power thinking, of the shadow of history returning, and of a longing for rationality that is expressed in Europe’s elites turning to scholarly knowledge (and, not surprisingly, failing to find answers). Welcome to the politics of unpredictability.
One thing is for sure: Those who hold the key to understanding the new game will be shaping and, ultimately, winning it.