All for one, one for all

By Simon Tisdall (THE GUARDIAN, 25/10/07):

Students of the European Union have become accustomed to rating competing member states in a sort of political Champions League table. National standings vary as leaders come and go. The perennial question is: who’s up, who’s down? It’s a game the likes of Jacques Chirac loved to play.

But in the lull after the storm over the EU’s reform treaty, Europe’s current Big Three – Britain’s Gordon Brown, Germany’s Angela Merkel and France’s Nicolas Sarkozy – find themselves roughly level-pegging. No one leader enjoys a marked advantage in terms of influence, ideas or political momentum. All have notable weaknesses.

On most key international issues, including security, economic liberalisation, and climate change, members of this new European triumvirate find themselves in broad agreement. All three are pro-American. All are critical of Vladimir Putin, as tomorrow’s EU-Russia meeting in Portugal may demonstrate.

As the EU gropes for a way forward after years of constitutional and institutional wrangling, this unusual alignment, diplomats and analysts say, presents a rare opportunity.

“This is a strong European moment, or at least it should be,” said a senior French official. “Globally speaking the three are in agreement. It takes two to tango but perhaps you need all three to make a difference”.

Mr Brown has quickly asserted Britain’s view of where the EU should go from here. The government’s Global Europe paper, published this week ahead of December’s Lisbon summit, promotes issues close to the prime minister’s heart: freer markets, enlarged skill bases, energy and telecoms deregulation, poverty reduction, and budget reform.

But having made such a fuss over his “red lines”, Mr Brown alone cannot set the agenda.

“In order to take a leadership position, one has to be a full player,” said the French official. “Brown’s opt-outs have reinforced Britain’s status as a half-player. You can’t have it both ways.”

Mr Brown’s political courage is also questioned. “Most EU countries more or less subscribe to the British world view,” said Mark Leonard of the European Council on Foreign Relations. “Brown has a great opportunity. But he is reluctant to say anything positive about the EU for fear of the reaction at home.”

Germany’s position is more nuanced. Eighteen months ago, Ms Merkel was uncrowned queen of Europe. She replaced Tony Blair as George Bush’s main squeeze, the economy was reviving, Germany was cruising towards the G8 and EU presidencies, and crucially, she was not Gerhard Schröder.

Now the chancellor looks less comfortable. Her grand coalition grows fractious, with the SPD rediscovering to its socialist roots. Poland is not alone among member states in criticising Germany’s gas pipeline pact with Russia. And Washington’s ardour may be cooling. Tensions over Afghanistan (Berlin has no combat troops there) and perceived foot-dragging over Iranian sanctions (Germany is the mullahs’ top trading partner) are partly to blame.

Suggestions that Ms Merkel has squandered her European leadership credentials are rejected in Berlin. Officials say that on Russia and human rights she has taken a tougher line than her predecessor. But at a time when clear direction was needed, she seemed reluctant to stick her neck out, said Mr Leonard. “Germany is torn between its pro-European instincts and commercial interests.”

Even so, the idea of Europe following Mr Sarkozy, the most talented and most flawed member of the triumvirate, looks far-fetched at this juncture. One reason is his heavy domestic agenda, already running into trouble on the streets. Another is a growing insinuation that the French leader is not yet operating on a wholly even keel, an idea encouraged by his marriage break-up, his outspoken bellicosity on Iran, and his pro-American effusions. While Ms Merkel merely encouraged Washington’s advances, he has shamelessly thrown himself at Mr Bush.

“At the moment I think we’re all waiting for Sarkozy to blow off steam and settle down,” said a German diplomat.

In contrast to Mr Brown’s long laundry list of useful things to do, France will ask the Lisbon summit to conjure a new vision for Europe by empanelling a group of “wise men”. On past precedent, Ms Merkel will take the middle way. The result will be a fudge.

But EU watchers say it need not be like that. If Ms Merkel is ready to take risks, if Mr Sarkozy calms down, and if Mr Brown screws up his nerve, Europe’s three musketeers, working together, could give the EU a fresh start that the smaller countries would follow. In reformed Europe’s premier league, all can be champions.