Contribution for Europe's World - Will France and Germany be able to lead the EU into the 21st century?

Since how long are they gone, the good old times of Franco-German relations? The times in which common initiatives for Europe were the rule; where a Franco-German proposal constituted a comfortable and acceptable compromise for whole Europe; where the two, when pulling together on a goal, it would be achieved in one way or the other? One needs to think back long now, and perhaps, seen from the retro perspective, the Treaty of Maastricht was the last master piece of the Franco-German engine.

Estrangement took place already in the 90s, though these were still glorious years for European integration: France never got enthusiastically engaged in the enlargement business; the making of the Euro (it is forgotten today, hurray!) let to serious Franco-German tensions on economic policy making during the years 1993 and, say, 1999; then, on the defense side, some French decisions, such as the professionalization of the army or the series of nuclear testing in 1996 did also rather harm the relationship; the Nice-Treaty and its preparation in the year 2000 were not the best proof for a functioning Franco-German couple; the European Convention did not show cast any serious or glorious Franco-German initiative; and the past, say, five years of Jacques Chirac’s ‘reign’ were more deadlock than anything else in terms of both, Franco-German relations and European integration, crowned by a spectacular French ‘no’ to the draft of the European Constitution, in May 2005.

If anything, Franco-German relations have been dysfunctional for long, a ‘Locomotive without carriers’, instead of a dynamic tandem. The Franco-German request for political leadership (on Iraq); their sort of ‘authoritarian’ behavior (i.e. criticizing tax regimes in Eastern Europe while not complying with the stability pact themselves at the same time); their sort of morally ‘arrogant’ manner (we alone know what political Europe is, how it works best and we do the deals alone, i.e. on agriculture in October 2002), all this has not only been appallingly irrespective of the other EU member countries, especially those which came in 2004. It simply has not been fruitful at all for European integration at large, which seemed deadlocked for years.
There are many obvious explanations why the Franco-German engine cannot function as before and there is no point in wishing back the good old times. Germany got more national, and France ever less interested in the enlarged Europe, in which it felt and feels marginalized. For the rest, it is physical evidence that an engine accustomed to pull 12 or 15 countries may reach at its limits when the European car gets bigger and heavier. The real question is what kind of new leadership can be generated around the Franco-German axis for the European Union, because the truth is still that without, let alone against France or Germanys or both nothing happens within the EU. Both alone are still the essential critical mass for any given progress within the EU.

Let’s resume nearly a year of cooperation with the new French president: For a start, Germany did not like the first statements of President Sarkozy concerning the ECB. Germany made clear that the times for discussions about the independence of the ECB and the stability goal are over. Those were followed by various erratic proposals on the more bilateral side; then, Sarkozy’s travel to Russia which took the spin of a ‘power-race’ out passing Germany in its importance with respect to its relations to Russia. It had this taste of a newcomer who was trying to put the Doyen of Europe, Ms Merkel, on the accompanying seat. The difficult task for Germany was how to remain constructive without being given ownership in Franco-German relations and their dynamic for Europe.

Came the proposal for an independent reflection group on Europe’s future. Germany – as none of the other countries - dared to voice skepticism, but nobody believed in its creative nature, neither. However, the ‘independent reflection group’ did not come along as an energetic Franco-German proposal like in the good old times, but as a French unilateral invention, which in addition, merely hide that the group was conceived to torpedo Turkish full membership in the Union. Germany did what you needed to do, when you need to embrace because you cannot beat. No point that Germany would not support a French initiative. The art work was to embrace and, at a time, dismantle it. The finale mandate given to the group at last years’ EU-Council meeting only vaguely resembled what France had intended.

Next came the Mediterranean Union, triggering a nearly eight month-long dispute about the future European geo-strategy and its priorities between France and Germany.
Germany as much as other countries considered that the existing structures of the Barcelona-process have not been sufficiently considered. The proposal gave more the impression to start something from scratch, and to create a French ‘parallel universe’ of its own influence zone. Also, together with other countries, Germany felt uncomfortable with respect to the planned dozen or so new agencies to administer the Mediterranean Union. There was a French attitude to push for the project beyond any critique that ended up in a unusually heavy dispute between Berlin and Paris in February 2008. A couple of days later, France announced the postponement of the ‘Blaesheim-Talks’, a Franco-German high-ranking format to discuss European issues, that had been established after the tragedy of the Nice-Treaty. Given the usual tightness of Franco-German institutional relations, this seemed like a threat to break down any communication. The good news is that only a few weeks later, Merkel succeeded in finding an agreement with Nicolas Sarkozy at a dinner in Hannover early March. The strength of Franco-German relations is that the institutional mechanisms hold, when agreement on the content is missing. Franco-German disputes do not last long, that is the very positive component in it. (In difference i.e. to German-Polish disputes able to poison the political climate for month.) It also makes people realize how important de facto these relations are: too important to lose weeks over a dispute!

However, the clash over the Mediterranean Union showed again that there is no Franco-German understanding about a European geo-strategy at large with respect to the East and the South of Europe. France still feels – wrongly – disadvantaged by the Eastern enlargement, believing that this is more useful to Germany, both politically and economically. The Mediterranean Union was the attempt to create France’s own ‘Hinterhof’, tailored to serve French political and industrial interests first, i.e. with respect to the French nuclear industry. The recent agreement on a sort of ‘Barcelona-Plus’ found at the dinner hardly conveys the message that France and Germany have found a new and comprehensive common line on what should be done in Europe’s East and South together and how. If you cannot find a solution to a problem, put it in another box, said Jean Monnet. The clout is that the EU needs to find its way out of the Franco-German shortage.
In this respect, Sarkozy’s travel to the UK on March 27th, carefully staged and enthusiastically celebrated in a way that could not contrast more with the morose image and the pale taste of current Franco-German relations, could have, indeed, a salutary effect. Yes, first glance, as if on purpose, Sarkozy discussed with Gordon Brown all those topics that have a potential to make Germany feel left behind: first, the deal on nuclear energy, whereas Germany has committed to withdrawal from nuclear energy; thus, occupying energy and climate policy that precisely Angela Merkel had put on top on her agenda during the German EU-Presidency, with also the footnote that for Nikolas Sarkozy nuclear energy ranges among ‘renewables’, which is surely another pomme de discorde and not necessarily suitable to build new confidence between France and Germany. Second, the Franco-British commitment to further promote ESDP and to stronger engage in Afghanistan. Not that both are bad, on the contrary, but Germany needs to remain engaged in both policies, and needs to be pulled into them rather than being bypassed. If this is the effect beyond short-term emotions, then, at a second glance, this trip has the potential to put a new leadership team for the EU in place.

For the art of political leadership within the EU will be about adding, not supplementing. It is good that Franco-British cooperation gets denser, pulling the UK more towards Europe, as much as German-British relations also improved over the past month. It is precisely that – finally! – European responsibilities get distributed on more shoulders, which is good: Iran, climate, ESDP are at least three perfect examples, why the Franco-German engine is still the necessary, but no longer the sufficient condition for progress and action in Europe. And even more: for the bigger geo-strategic questions, such as the EU’S future relations towards Russia or the EU-NATO relationship, more partners in the EU leadership-team will be needed, especially from the East. Poland is the most evident to count on. Germany is the only country that is in both, in the ‘Big Three’ structure as well as in the ‘Weimarer Triangle’, which’s engine potential is often overlooked. So Germany is the glue between East and West in the new leadership team, and it needs to actively grow into this position.

Liberty leading the people, Eugène Delacroix

Everybody, especially Germany has an interest in a successful French EU-Presidency. Germany wants to remain constructive above all. France, however, is now slowing down ambitions, with ‘modesty’ being the code-word. Initially, France had four major goals for its presidency: promoting the energy and climate agenda of the EU further; a grand initiative on European migration policy; a CAP-health-check in relations with the review-clause of the EU-budget; and senior initiatives with respect to ESDP, accompanied by an announced return to the military structures of NATO, which, by the way, could further ease out the Franco-British-German relationship. In addition, the decision about the implementation of the Lisbon Treaty will fall into the French presidency, meaning the nominations of the future ‘triad’ running the EU – as well as the first important steps to shape the future European External Action Service (EEAS). For all this, France will still need especially German help and support. The quicker Nicolas Sarkozy and some of his team learn that the EU is not the prolonged arm for French ‘gloire’, and that he better does not fool around with old partners, the better.

Even Francois Mitterrand, it is forgotten today, needed two years to arrive at this conclusion and to re-acknowledge the importance of Franco-German co-operation. He u-turned his whole policy in order to stay in the EMS – and in Europe. And then, he mastered the famous Summit of Fontainebleau in 1984, a masterpiece not only fixing the EU-budget, but revamping the whole integration project and clearing the way for the European Single Act and gave a totally new impetus to Europe. Maybe Nicolas Sarkozy will be good for such a surprise!
France and Germany together will the other countries will need to remember that the Lisbon Treaty is not l’art pour l’art. It is the residual former European Constitution that was shaped to lead the EU into the 21st century. For that the engine needs to become bigger. But in order to get bigger, it first needs to function again: tandem means pedaling in the same direction, not vesting energy in competition, nor replacing one strategic partnership through another.
The French presidency will be the last within the old institutional set-up. In 2009, the EU will begin a new narrative that might unfold more gravity for a single European foreign policy than one may think today. It is in France hands, together with Germany, to now build a new leadership team for the EU around the Franco-German tandem. But this supposes that France gives the impression that it truly cares for Europe and its role in the world and that the EU is more than a tool!

Ulrike Guérot