The French Problem

Boris Johnson, Mayor of London, visited the French city of Bordeaux last year and treated his counterpart Alain Juppé to some British humour: "Did you know I have more Frenchmen in London than you do in Bordeaux?" There are around 350,000 Frenchmen in London. French people who want to run a business can't do that in a stagnant France. If the current trend continues, the volume of Dutch exports next year will be higher than the French. The popularity of President Hollande has fallen to 18%. The French political elite fears a beating in the European elections of 25 May by a triumphant Marine Le Pen, the standard-bearer of the Front National.

The political weight of France, the second largest economy in the Eurozone, has fallen dramatically in a short time. France and Germany used to be at the same level politically, though the French economy could never match the German. The EU could not take decisions against France. Paris always knew how to form a blocking coalition and, if necessary, they could morally blackmail the Germans. The French decline is worrying. The Dutch might be tempted to gloat, but that attitude is wrong because in the end, the French Thalys was the only company that managed to link Amsterdam and Brussels by train last year. It is also unwise. A weak and insecure France is a greater threat to Europe than the confident display of flags of 'la grande nation' which, like French women, contains a lot of charm. Chancellor Merkel and President Sarkozy were a European political couple; President Hollande seems pathetic.

'Energy NATO' could rein in Putin

John Kerry , the U.S. Secretary of State , recently said that Russian President Vladimir Putin is using 19th century methods in the 21st century. Kerry is behaving as if Putin was impolite during a state banquet and burped at the table. But Putin's mind-set is largely rooted in the 19th century. Politics is about power, not about law. The West, accustomed to diplomatic conferences on noble UN objectives, has trouble with cynical realpolitik.

Modern political leaders know more about public relations than about history, let alone the 19th century. Kerry is no Kissinger. The former US foreign minister obtained a PHD with the thesis 'A World Restored', on the Congress of Vienna (1814-1815). Henry Kissinger wrote in the Washington Post: "Far too often the Ukrainian issue is posed as a showdown: whether Ukraine joins the East or the West. But if Ukraine is to survive and thrive, it must not be either side’s outpost against the other — it should function as a bridge between them."

What can we expect from Putin with his 19th Century methods? He used the chaos in Ukraine to annex Crimea, home to the Russian Black Sea Fleet and where 60% of the population is Russian. He received massive support from the Russian people for whom Crimea has always been part of the Russian demos. Ukraine cannot do anything, and the West is both shocked and helpless. For Putin, there was little risk.

Kremlin in Frankfurt

As a student in Amsterdam I once took Russian studies to become an expert in Kremlinology: the study of the balance of power in the Soviet Union. I particularly remember the musty smell of piles of Russian newspapers in the Eastern Europe Institute. The Soviet Union collapsed and I had little use for Kremlinology, until as an MEP I got a little insight into the European Central Bank (ECB). The ECB doesn't publish minutes, doesn't really explain itself, doesn't give access to internal affairs and forces us to read between the lines. The Italian ECB president, Mario Draghi, speaks in a code language which - having been educated by Jesuits - he masters like no other.

The ECB is based on the model of the German central bank, the Bundesbank. Its main task was the taming of inflation. The first president, Wim Duisenberg , did just that; and at first, so did his successor, the Frenchman Jean-Claude Trichet did. This changed after 2008. The EU didn't see the euro crisis coming. In 2010, José Manuel Barroso, President of the European Commission, called the euro the 'protective shield' against the crisis, while the euro had fuelled the debt crisis with low interest rates. By the end of 2011, the euro stood on the brink of collapse, so the ECB injected €1.1 trillion into the banking sector. When that proved insufficient, Draghi stated in mid-2012 that he would do "whatever it takes" to save the euro. He became the monetary James Bond, albeit with a 'license to print'.

The ECB is no longer the brainchild of the Bundesbank and is going beyond its statutory mandate. That provoked a struggle within the Governing Council of the ECB, which consists of a Board of six people along with the governors of central banks of the euro zone. The majority advocated an expansionary monetary policy. A minority, led by the Bundesbank, is critical of such action. Draghi stands on the side of the majority, but the ECB is nothing without the Bundesbank, the main shareholder of the ECB.