French and German leaders were holding an informal summit meeting in Berlin over dinner late Monday to discuss how to reform the European Union to make it more efficient and transparent before the 15-nation bloc brings in up to 10 new members by 2004. France and Germany together were once the driving force behind the EU, but they no longer march in lockstep.
France and Germany agreed a year ago to hold informal mini-summits every six-to-eight weeks after they clashed at an EU summit in Nice over how much power each should wield in an expanding bloc.
In the old days, Germany was content to let France take the lead in European affairs. German leaders traditionally have shied away from pushing Germany's weight around, even after it became Europe's economic powerhouse. The reason lies in history. After World War II, Germany was intent on being a good member of the European community.
Now, that has changed. Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder is the first German leader to have been born after the war. He is not weighed down by the baggage of the past. And he feels a reunited Germany, with its 80 million people, can afford to be more assertive in European affairs, especially since it contributes far more money to the EU budget than any other country.
The old Franco-German alliance is now fraying. The close personal ties that existed between former Chancellor Helmut Kohl and the late French President Francois Mitterand are not shared by Mr. Schroeder and his French counterparts, President Jacques Chirac and Prime Minister Lionel Jospin.
Charles Grant, who heads the Center for European Reform in London, says the new German assertiveness and the EU's move to incorporate former communist countries to Germany's east are of great concern to France. "Germany is now unified and, therefore, much bigger than France," he said. "Its economy is bigger. It's preponderant. It's in the middle of the new Europe that's expanding to the East, while France is worried about the EU's expansion, bringing in a lot of countries that are close to Germany or Britain, that are pro-American, pro-free trade, like Poland and Hungary and the Czech Republic. France feels worried and isolated in this new Europe."
While Germany wants to keep the enlargement process on track, France is having second thoughts. Paris has not publicly opposed expansion, but it has suggested that it might not be a bad idea if the EU puts off enlargement until Bulgaria and Romania are also ready to join sometime in the future.
The French who, like the British, are in favor of a loose confederation of member states, with sovereignty residing in national capitals and not in Brussels, are worried that further European integration, which is favored by Germany, will break down national authority and expose protected industries and agriculture to foreign competition.
How the future of the EU is played out will, to some extent, depends on elections later this year in France and Germany.
Still to be decided are such key issues as how to share power in an expanded union, how to allocate regional aid among members and deal with controversial farm subsidies, and how to create a common defense force and foreign policy.
Mr. Chirac and Mr. Jospin are bitter rivals who are expected to face off for the presidency in May. They will try to convince their constituents in the months ahead that France still wields a lot of clout in Europe. Mr. Schroeder also has to prove to his fellow citizens that he is defending Germany's interests in the EU.