Once again the Common Market faces trouble from Charles de Gaulle. Just one year ago he prevented Britain's entrance into the European Economic Community. Now he is threatening the "disappearance" of the EEC itself.
De Gaulle has warned the Common Market nations, particularly Germany, that unless they can agree on common international food tariffs for meat, rice, and dairy products by December 31, the EEC might well "disappear." Last week France's agricultural minister Edgar Pisani left a crucial meeting in disgust, admonishing Germany for its failure to bargain and once more repeating de Gaulle's ultimatum. To lend credence to his threat, the French President at about the same time announced a press conference in mid-January, almost exactly one year after the conference at which he vetoed Britain's request to enter the market. The timing is probably far from coincidental.
Although most European diplomats believe de Gaulle is bluffing, they are just uncertain enough to be afraid. Last January remains a bitter reminder of what de Gaulle is willing to do. They do not question his sincerity about common tariffs, only his stated willingness to destroy the EEC if he does not get his way.
There is always a possibility that he is telling the truth--that he believes there can be no Common Market without common tariffs. But the lesson of his past actions and statements undercuts this supposition. If France were to abandon the EEC, it would lose its control over the other five members and accept solitude instead. Such isolation seems irreconcilable with de Gaulle's announced hope of an independent Europe, led by France and Germany, acting as a buffer between East and West.
A more likely possibility is that de Gaulle intends to use Europe's fear that he might carry out his threat to put himself in an improved bargaining position, from which he could force not only his ideas on agriculture but also his conception of Europe on the other members.
France would benefit from any decrease in rates on agricultural products, while Germany would suffer. But de Gaulle is not concerned with agriculture alone. This spring the Kennedy round of tariff negotiations begins, and if they are successful, the United States will assume a more important position in the European economy. Such increased economic ties would strengthen Atlantic partnership. De Gaulle is not eager for that, nor does he believe that the economic results would benefit France. Germany, on the other hand, is enthusiastic about a closer economic relationship with the United States. Chancellor Ludwig Erhard is convinced that increased markets in America would help expand Germany's industrial economy.
The obvious solution is a compromise. According to The Economist, de Gaulle would promise Erhard his support of the general purposes of the Kennedy tariff negotiations if Germany would concede France's agricultural demands. By this ploy he would achieve his immediate aim and at the same time avoid committing himself to the specifics of the Kennedy rounds. Claiming he had only supported the goals and not the details of the tariff negotiations, he would be in a position to sabotage them and thus promote an independent Europe, stretching from the Atlantic to the Urals, with himself as its elder statesmen.
Such an approach on de Gaulle's part would be logical. Nearing 74, he knows there is little time left for him to translate his "grand design" from plans into action. So far he has been unable to convince other European nations to accept his ideas. Despite the Franco-German treaty, Germany has stood with the United States on all crucial issues: unlike France it has supported the concept of a multi-lateral NATO force and signed the nuclear test ban treaty.
There is one great difficulty with de Gaulle's scheme. It assumes Germany will be willing to make concessions on agricultural prices and at the same time settle for a broad statement on the Kennedy tariff negotiations. If, as seems likely, Germany refuses to accede, de Gaulle's plans would be seriously undermined.
By demanding a fair compromise--one through which France would receive lower prices on foodstuffs and promise support of expanded trade with the United States--Germany could force de Gaulle to make a crucial decision. He would either have to accept the proposal and endorse the idea of Atlantic partnership or turn it down and see France isolated from the rest of Europe.
Until now the Common Market nations have been willing to accept de Gaulle's ultimatums with equanimity, and de Gaulle, a masterful poker player with ability to bluff and intimidate his opposition, has had his way. But even the best of card players can overplay his hand on occasion.