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France and the Balkans in the New Age

Nikola Jovanović

 

Madeleine Albright once argued that "for one to understand Europe, one needs to be either a genius or French." Indeed, the European Community (EC), established some ten years after the end of the Second World War, represented a project furthering predominantly French interests. For the first time since wars led by Napoleon, France distinguished itself as a leading Western European force, capable of securing its strategic autonomy from the rest of the great powers, including the United States. Such community of European states, reflected the French ideals of the continent in its core. At the time, the Community was portrayed as a political union ran by great powers exerting their influence on the rest of the world (which sometimes also implied military interventions).

Charles de Gaulle, the key French figure of the epoch, devoted much of his efforts to stimulate a development of a multipolar world. The idea of national sovereignty is a perpetual French obsession, materialized by de Gaulle through maintaining the veto power in the EC and developing a nuclear arsenal. Despite being an avid anti-communist, he occasionally obstructed US interests in Africa and Asia, treating thereby a dominance by one great power (for which he believed to be the US) as a potential threat to the French sovereignty.

The aforementioned epoch ended with the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Germany.  Moreover, the order put forth by the Versailles Treaty failed definitively with the disintegration of Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia. Unsurprisingly, out of all European capitals, such developments were the least welcomed in Paris. In a sense, what Cold War period was to France in terms of European integration and welfare, the post-Cold War developments were to Germany. In 1990, the balance of power in Europe was shifted in Germany’s favor. At the time, it was even possible to imagine a replacement for the EC, or more precisely, an economic union of Germany with the states of Central Europe. That ideal has circulated among German elites since the creation of their Empire in 1871, and it could have been just as easily well received in 1990. Still, the question remains: What was the response from Paris?

In order to keep Germany tied to its European perspective, France accelerated the Maastricht Treaty negotiations, resulting in the transformation of the EC into the European Union. The Treaty envisaged a common monetary policy designed after the Bundesbank model, thus harboring the primary interests of Germany and effectively maintaining it within the “European realm”.

A major flaw of such strategy lied in the fact that France deprived itself as well as other European actors from space to maneuver in resolving monetary and economic issues. This drawback was proved critical with the outbreak of the financial crisis of 2008. The policy that favored a strong Euro, low inflation and high interest rates contributed to deepening discrepancies between Germany and the rest of the Continent. This eventually rendered it a central and unavoidable factor, needing no additional partners to govern Europe. Besides, France paid a very high price of its failed attempt to neutralize Germany, which manifested in rising social tensions.

However, we testified to an end of the post-Cold War epoch. Today, we are again faced with power shifts and repositioning on European and global levels.  Berlin will no more be in the comfortable position to act as a leader reluctant to assume responsibility. The debate revolving around the character and goals of Europe is reopened. Logically, Germany will continue making a strong case for economic governance of the EU by using instruments such as the European Central Bank and the European Commission, while the French will be expected to demand for economic governance to return to political framework where the heads of states and governments will be the decision-makers. To put it in different words, the French seek a fiscal union, while Germans want fiscal discipline. Paris is further likely to attempt to revitalize the Union for the Mediterranean and cooperation with the states of North Africa and the Middle East. Berlin on the other hand, focuses much of its attention to Eastern Europe, like many times before in history.

Whichever vision prevails, one thing is clear: Europe cannot stay isolated. Europe’s interaction with the rest of the world will have a determinative impact on its future as well as its internal character. For a particularly prolonged period of time, Europe was preoccupied with its internal issues, creating the impression that even some of its regions were on the periphery of important developments. Considering solely European perspective, the Balkans was until recently seen as a rather marginalized region. However, in an era of increasingly globalized trade, it might be positioned as an important link between Central Europe and the Mediterranean on one hand, and Western Europe and the Middle East on the other. The renewed significance of the Balkans is easily seen through enhanced interest of the United States and Russia for positions of the governments in the region on the Ukrainian crisis, plans for building the new pipeline and Chinese venture to purchase the Port of Piraeus.

Serbia has to understand the ongoing changes in Europe and the world, so it could, under new circumstances, seek partnerships to build infrastructure and become an important spot in international trade. Belgrade’s European policies must not come down to occasional addresses of the European Commission Officials to the Serbian National Assembly. Instead, the real focus should be on finding its role in the contemporary world, where it could serve as one of key gates for interaction with other regions.

 

Nikola Jovanović

CIRSD Program Director

 

The article was originally published in Serbian, in a daily newspaper Politika on 2 July 2014.

 

 

 

 

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