The EU and the squabbles of Spring
It has been a long, glorious spring in much of Europe, but not in the EU. Division has broken out like a rash. First there was Libya: French President Nicolas Sarkozy shocked his EU colleagues by unilaterally recognising the rebels in Benghazi. Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker said icily: "The Europeans would do well if they talk about the measures they want to decide on in the meeting and not the day before."
When Europe's leaders could not even bring themselves to use the words "no-fly-zone" at their emergency summit, France and Britain went straight to the UN and won a resolution that led to military intervention. Germany abstained in the UN vote, a decision with far-reaching consequences. It put France and Germany on opposite sides in one of the most important foreign policy issues in a decade.
Berlin denied it was isolated, by pointing out how much support it had. "Many other countries in the EU not only understand our position, not only respect it, but also share it," the German foreign minister said. The Italians - Col Muammar Gaddafi's closest allies in Europe - were equally unhappy. Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi accused France of taking a "neo-imperialist" approach to confronting the Libyan leader.
When operational command for the military campaign was passed to Nato further divisions followed. Only six Nato nations actually ended up carrying out the air strikes.
The Times concluded in an editorial "a moment that demands unity in European foreign policy is being met with a terrible muddle". Then there was nuclear power.
With the Japanese struggling to prevent a meltdown, German Chancellor Angela Merkel changed her policy overnight. Faced with crucial regional elections she took the country's oldest reactors offline and set Germany on course for giving up nuclear power.
Her allies - in particular France, which operates over 50 reactors - were aghast. There had been no co-ordination of policy.
Angela Merkel said "it was a decisive moment for the world". The French minister Eric Besson responded, saying: "It is a serious accident, not a nuclear disaster." The French Senate's finance committee was scathing: "Germany's decision to shut down the nuclear plants was an emotional, knee-jerk reaction... which could hurt ties with France and should be discussed at the European level."
Then there was the eurozone crisis: the plan was to agree a comprehensive package at a summit in March, which was billed as solving the crisis once and for all. National elections got in the way and the sign-off date has been pushed back to June. But Portugal overshadowed the meeting. Its parliament rejected austerity measures which had in large degree been drawn up by the European Central Bank and the European Commission.
Suddenly - with an eye on the voters - some of Europe's politicians were saying "no" to further austerity. Angela Merkel was not pleased. "A lot depends now," she said, "on those who represent Portugal making it clear that Portugal feels obliged to stick to the goals of that 'austerity' programme". The announcement of a bail-out for Portugal went remarkably smoothly and there was no sign of the crisis spreading to other countries like Spain. But then along came Finland.
They are one of the few countries that get to vote on a bail-out package. One party, the True Finns, was set against rescuing the "squanderers" of Portugal. As we now know the party got 19% of the vote. Appeals to European solidarity cut little ice. Their leader put their approach this way: "Finnish cows must be milked in Finland and we shouldn't send milk for charity outside the borders of this country."
It may well be that Finland continues to support a Portuguese bail-out, but it will become harder to get through the Finnish parliament. Charles Grant from the Centre for Economic Reform observed recently that "there may be a time when, even if politicians want to do the right things for the euro, public opinion will not allow them to." For if voters in the richer countries are increasingly unhappy with rescuing others, so too there is resentment at austerity - the price of being saved. The Republic of Ireland's new Prime Minister, Enda Kenny, had promised his voters he would re-negotiate the bail-out deal.
He wanted the interest rate on the loans brought down from 5.8%. In Brussels he ran into a wall of resistance. President Sarkozy insisted Ireland "make some effort" in raising its corporate tax rate. Angela Merkel weighed in that there could only be progress if the other European countries "got something in return." But Enda Kenny knows that its low corporate tax rate is part of the Republic's economic identity and he can't concede.
One European prime minister said: "I'm not happy with the idea that some governments obviously find some pleasure in torturing Ireland in the meetings." Then came the migrants from North Africa. Over 20,000 landed on the Italian island of Lampedusa. The Italians did not want them to stay, and issued them with temporary travel documents knowing that many would try and make it to France, where they had families and friends.
The French, aware of how sensitive the issue of immigration is, began patrolling their border with Italy. On Sunday they stopped and searched an Italian train. The Italians were furious. Interior Minister Robert Maroni said: "I wonder if it makes sense staying in the EU." The Italians insisted that the French were breaking the no-borders agreement under the Schengen treaty. Initially the European Commission seemed to agree. "You are not allowed to do checks at the border unless there is a serious threat to public security and, for the moment, that is not the case," said Cecilia Malmstrom.
Yesterday she seemed to back France. None of this impressed Silvio Berlusconi, who earlier said "either Europe is something that's real and concrete or it isn't. And in that case it's better to go back to each going our own way and letting everyone follow his own polices and egotism." New divisions are emerging over Greece. The official line is that any restructuring of Greek debt would be "catastrophic".
And yet increasingly that is what the Greek people seem to want. They are tiring of austerity. Once again European unity will be tested. Hungarian Foreign Minister Janos Martonyi said in an interview that "European federalism was a beautiful idea, one I myself believed in. But it's a fact that the concept of the nation-state has [again] gained in strength and significance." That was the Libyan lesson.
When President Sarkozy couldn't get European backing for military action in Libya, he just found another way by embarking on what the French called "blitzkrieg diplomacy".
So what lies behind the squabbles of spring? Politicians are caught between the moods of their voters and the policies of the European Union. Unemployment is a key factor.
Austerity, in some countries, is driving up the dole queues. Countries cutting their budgets have little money to help others. And with immigration, the idea of "burden-sharing" runs counter to the instincts of many of Europe's people. Open borders seem less attractive when youth unemployment is running at 25%. Even with few major European elections on the horizon national leaders are responding to the mood of the voters.