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France/Germany: 40 Years Later, Does The Elysee Treaty Really Matter Anymore?

  • Breffni O'Rourke

On 23 January 1963, France and Germany signed the Elysee Treaty, an accord of friendship between the two great continental powers. It was designed to create the backbone of a new and peaceful Europe by cementing amity between two neighbors that had been at war three times in less than a century. But now, nearly a half century later, does the treaty matter as much as it used to?

Prague, 22 January 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Forty years ago, the swinging '60s were about to begin. In Western Europe, people had money in their pockets as postwar economies expanded after years of austerity. Paris bubbled with life, flashy whitewall tires were "in" for the new family car, and the Beatles were about to take the world by storm.

Berlin, the ravaged former capital of imperial Germany, was partly in Western hands but lay encircled, deep inside communist territory. Berliners tried to keep up their spirits as they stared at the wall built by the Communists two years previously.

Nevertheless, this was the moment -- 18 years after the end of World War II -- that former enemies France and Germany signed the Elysee Treaty, pledging them to perpetual friendship and cooperation.

The treaty was considered the key act in providing Europe with a brighter future after so many conflicts. The relationship between Germany and France, the two big continental powers, was seen as the essential relationship. The fledgling Common Market, later to become the European Union, was built on the principle that pooled coal and steel resources, particularly by the big two members, would hinder more war.

That was true then, but so many years later, is the Elysee Treaty still so important? James Waltson, a professor of politics at Rome's American University, said: "Forty years ago, [the Elysee Treaty] was the key. Today, it is one of the keys. It is still essential, but it is certainly not the only thing which is essential because of the other players that are in the EU, and the way the EU has moved on, and the way history has moved on."

With the coming expansion eastward into Central and Eastern Europe, the European Union will have enlarged more than fourfold since it was formed. Each expansion tends to bring a dilution of power for any single member. "The two biggest countries out of six [members] are obviously proportionally far more important than two big countries out of 15, or going on into the 20s," Waltson said.

Recognizing this, France and Germany are acting preemptively to preserve their power, according to Aleksander Smolar, the head of the Stefan Batory Foundation in Warsaw, a private group that supports democracy, civil society, the rule of law, and a market economy in Poland and other Eastern European countries. Smolar said the French-German proposal for reform of the EU leadership structures announced earlier this month is a way of circumventing the small countries.

Smolar noted that among the Eastern newcomers, only Poland can be considered a major player. "The French-German proposal is a plan which is quite clearly on the side of big countries, of defending their possibility of action, and if necessary of imposing their will [on smaller members]. This is quite clear, and a lot of small countries are rather unhappy about [the proposal]," Smolar said.

Returning to the 40th anniversary-celebrations, Waltson went on to say that, despite all the fanfare, the occasion is not all that memorable -- and thank heavens for that. "We have reached, thank God, a normality in Europe, in which we don't expect France and Germany to go to war. We expect them to have little spats occasionally, and that's normal politics," Waltson said.

That perception of normalcy replacing anxiety is borne out by another analyst, Rinus van Schendelen. Speaking from Rotterdam University in the Netherlands, he said the Dutch are presently preoccupied with their own national election, and as a result, "Hardly any political or public attention has been paid to the treaty of friendship and the anniversary of it between France and Germany."

Neglect like that must surely rate as a good sign.