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Opinion6 days ago
First it was French President Sarkozy whose first act after being elected was to dash to Berlin to assure German Chancellor Angela Merkel that Franco-German relations were not only unsullied but also that they would be reinvigorated by the new occupant at the Elysee Palace.
Then it was the turn of freshly minted British premier Gordon Brown to make his first foreign trip as Prime Minister to pay his respects at the German chancellery in a sign that British-German relations were as much a priority for him as they were for his predecessor Tony Blair. The chancellor could not have been more pleased at this gesture. For Mr Brown, it was establishing his EU credentials, if ever they were suspect.
Are we making too much of Mr Brown’s choice of Berlin over traditionally important Washington for his first foreign trip, with German newspapers interpreting it as a sure sign of a shift away from Mr Blair’s focus on the US? As the liberal Sueddeutsche Zeitung crowed, it was “noteworthy” that Mr Brown had “not yet even fixed a date for his inaugural visit in Washington” till then. Maybe but he had already spoken to Mr Bush three times since coming to office.
Actually the first clear signs that Gordon Brown will reorder Britain’s foreign policy emerged last week when one of his closest cabinet colleagues, Douglas Alexander, the trade and development secretary, urged the US to change its outlook and revise its core values. The speech, incidentally, was the first by a cabinet minister abroad since Mr Brown took power last month. It represented a call for the West to place the fight against global poverty at the forefront of foreign policy, and recognise the virtues of so-called “soft power” and action through international institutions including the UN.
The speech was as direct as it was pertinent. It asserted the importance of multilateralism in Mr Brown’s foreign policy and drove home the point that in the 21st century the need was for new alliances based on common values. Although terrorism and extremism sometimes had to be combated by force, victory could not be secured by military means alone. “We need to demonstrate through our deeds and actions that we are internationalist, not isolationist; multilateralist, not unilateralist; and driven by fundamental values rather than by special interests”.
In order to soothe inevitably ruffled feathers, Mr Alexander also went out of his way to underline the special relationship between London and Washington but challenged the US and its partners to “recognise the importance of a rules-based international system”.
The grenade has been tossed. And some neocons in the Bush administration have already displayed signs of nerves at the direction of Mr Brown’s foreign policy that may well signify the end of the much-touted special relationship. While Downing Street was quick to deny any such thing, the speech was, nevertheless, a sign – like the earlier appointment of Mark Malloch Brown, a UN critic of the war in Iraq, to a job in the Foreign Office – that Mr Brown and his team intend to rebalance Britain’s foreign policy objectives. This shift may be subtle but has begun to work its way.
Only last month, the outgoing foreign secretary, Margaret Beckett, raised eyebrows in the Bush administration with a speech calling for total nuclear disarmament. Not to be overlooked that the speech was made in consultation with, and with the approval of, Mr Brown. As sources in Washington have it, the Brown team is asserting its independence “one policy speech at a time”.
Let’s not harp too much on the special relationship. If anything, it should be viewed as the start of a new relationship. As for the Berlin trip, the two leaders have used the occasion to reiterate and reinforce their common interests in EU policymaking. The election of a new generation of European leaders in Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy gives Mr Brown a chance to make a new start with the EU, given his Eurosceptic background. But Mr Brown and Ms Merkel have common ground beyond politics: they were both born to strict Protestant pastor fathers, and make much of their love of literature.
And it needs be said that a new engagement with Europe should only be one aspect of a reordered British foreign policy. For instance, while Britain’s military forces are umbilically linked to Washington, this should not restrict Britain’s ability to use diplomacy in a more independent fashion than Tony Blair often seemed to attempt. Britain’s relationship with the US was ill-served by his instinct to stand by George Bush irrespective of circumstances and however flawed the policy. The test would come when tough decisions would have to be taken where Britain’s interests may not necessarily coincide with those of a unilateralist US.
In the meanwhile, Frankfurt is stirring, but for different reasons. Time was when Jacques Delor, the former European Commission president and “Mr Europe” par excellence”, used to say that if not every German believed in God they did all believe in the Bundesbank. Today, the Germans have undergone a conversion to the preaching of the ECB based in Frankfurt and headed by a Frenchman. Reason enough for Mr Nicolas Sarkozy’s latest proposals for a more pro-active exchange rate policy on the part of the ECB to be viewed as blasphemy on this side of the rhine.
The German government has lost no time in denouncing this assault on the cherished independence of the ECB, with the country’s high priestess of ECB independence, Angela Merkel, mincing no words in defending the “alpha and omega” of the ECB credo.
But Mr Sarkozy continues to argue that the strong euro – it reached a record high against the dollar recently and looks set to move even higher – undermines economic growth. However, any amount of currency manipulation is no answer to an efficient and disciplined economy. Not to forget that Europe is paying less for a barrel of oil, which in itself is no mean aid to industry.
Mr Sarkozy and Ms. Merkel have pledged to inject new life in the old relationship. The difference now is that they are no longer seeking to hide their disagreements. The one over independence of the ECB and exchange rate management may only be symptomatic of the problem.
M N Hebbar is a Berlin based writer
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