It’s the 9th of November…so, in total observance of my usual standard operating procedures, let’s think about the European presidency, or as my wonderful, wonderful Soizick puts it, who’s going to get the job of being Tony Blair.
It looks a lot like the lucky girl won’t be Blair; the reason why is more interesting and more telling. Over the last few weeks, we’ve seen a string of small states around Germany take quite a daring stand in foreign policy; Austria, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, all progressively came out against Tony Blair. It seems more obvious that this is an interesting or daring stand if you take a Brussels view, in which Blair is still a respected member of the world elite, than if you take a street level view, in which he’s widely despised. Also, if you consider the UK or Norway to be a 10 on the NATO scale, the Netherlands must be about an 8 – the presence of the Joint Forces Command in Brunssum, and the long-standing and very close relationship with the British armed forces over the commitment to the NATO Northern Flank, are the most obvious manifestations of this. Indeed, the Dutch army served in the British zone of Iraq and its Apache helicopters, the first European-owned ones, are still flying in Afghanistan. (That the first AH-64Ds in European ownership are Dutch is a marker of NATO spirit in itself.)
So the fact they came out against Blair is interesting.
Further, it’s incredibly rare that the Austrians would launch a significant foreign policy initiative without first clearing it with Berlin. This has been true since at least 1878, and the most famous example is one that neither party would like to recall – the Blankoscheck of 1914. Dutch policy is not much different. The upshot is that in opposing Blair, this odd block of states was in a sense acting for Angela Merkel. Not long ago, and we’re talking two months here, Nicolas Sarkozy was being tempted to support Blair; relations between Britain and France have rarely been better than during the last three or so years, it being a major priority for both sides to mend fences after the ghastly Alistair Campbell-inspired frogbashing campaign in the run-up to the Iraq war.
The Franco-German alliance is considered untouchable by both allies, and everyone else – we all know only too well the alternatives. Practicality requires both of them to maintain a relationship nearly as close with Britain, as does the value of having other options. So, assuming Merkel doesn’t want Blair, it was necessary to have the opposition to him floated by others.
In terms of foreign policy, this is the Germany that resulted from the 9th of November, when Merkel herself decided to go to the sauna rather than rush to the border. She apparently reasoned that, once open, there would be no closing it again, and therefore there was no hurry; of course, she was right, but when you think of some of the stories from the Wall years about people whose lives were utterly changed by which side of the border chance put them, it demonstrated a lot of confidence in her reasoning.
This is the Berlin republic, then; discreet, hypercompetent, and steeped in that distinctly northern European combination of self-effacing modesty and intense pride. Like 17th century houses in Amsterdam or 18th century ones in Edinburgh or York; ostentatiously modest, excessive in their austerity of design. Or the supposed Yorkshire traits – being both taciturn and opinionated is quite a trick. It’s been said before that in German, there’s no distinction between the words for citizen/civil/civic and for bourgeois, and that the revolution worked in this ambiguity. Merkel is exhibit A.