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Franco-German power

Gavin Hewitt | 13:10 UK time, Wednesday, 25 November 2009

French President Nicolas Sarkozy (left), German Chancellor Angela Merkel (centre) and EU Commission President Jose Manuel BarrosoNext week the European Union is likely to know who will sit on the next Commission. These posts never gain much attention in the popular press, but for the aficionados these are the top jobs in Euroland. A commissioner is hugely influential and controls the agenda in whatever field they are responsible for.

There are always suspicions of deals, of carve-ups, of the bigger states getting their way. Yesterday the President of the Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso, vowed to resist the pressure from the member states. To a degree, I suspect.

This time round there is increased fretting over the emergence of a Franco-German axis. France and Germany, it is said, want the all-important economic portfolios in order to control the EU's economic agenda.

Many in Britain fear that the French want their man, Michel Barnier, as the commissioner in charge of the internal market. They see in this a long-held French desire to regulate the City of London with its hedge funds and private equity funds.

Just in case no one was listening President Sarkozy said: "France will have a European commissioner with important responsibilities". His remark did not contain much doubt.

The most important part of the EU is the single market and power lies in regulating that. France and Germany, like other countries, know that the key to influence lies with just a few posts. Many suspect that Germany is also eyeing the presidency of the European Central Bank.

The Paris - Berlin axis, in its current form, is a recent embrace. Initially President Sarkozy, in a burst of energy, was preoccupied with his own projects and establishing himself as Europe's most visible leader. Then he began pursuing Chancellor Angela Merkel. He knows he is stronger inside a Franco-German alliance.

So how does this axis reveal itself?

- The choice of Herman Van Rompuy to be President of the European Council was interpreted in France and the UK as a victory for Merkel-Sarkozy. They had said beforehand they would reach an agreement together and not oppose each other. In Paris the rejection of Tony Blair was seen as a victory for Franco-German unity.

- Angela Merkel went to Paris for France's Armistice Day. She was the first German leader to take part. President Sarkozy enthused that the Franco-German friendship was a "treasure".

- The last time the two leaders met, President Sarkozy is said to have given Angela Merkel a copy of the notes General De Gaulle had taken at his first meeting with Chancellor Adenauer in 1958. Surely a sign that he wants the Sarkozy-Merkel relationship to follow that of Francois Mitterrand with Helmut Kohl and De Gaulle with Adenauer.

- France's loose-lipped Europe Minister Pierre Lellouche wrote in Le Monde that "more than ever the relationship between France and Germany will form the heart of what I would call the third phase of post-war European history". There is much talk of a "new Franco-German agenda for Europe".

In Paris and Berlin it is not difficult to hear this argument: that as the EU has expanded to 27 countries it has become harder to tackle issues decisively. That is what the Lisbon Treaty was supposed to address. But there are plenty of voices in and around government who believe that the 27 is too unwieldy and that only the two big powers have the will to take on the big projects and chart the future course of the union.

So when big decisions are taken, like with the Commission next week, they will be examined to see the hand of France and Germany.


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