At the heart of the European project, the Franco-German tandem provides impetus for further integration within the EU. However, Brussels is yet to decide which direction it wants to take, and the French and Germans still have to agree on their position with regards to economics, foreign affairs, or enlargement. The geopolitical context provides a call for action for an EU which endeavours to become increasingly “geopolitical” and aims at “speaking the language of power”. How can the French and Germans cooperate, and which hurdles are they going to face? What are the likely impacts of the elections, both in Germany and in France, going to be? Does the reshuffling of the international order leave any alternative to increased Franco-German and European convergence?
Franco-German Convergence – A Prerequisite for EU Action
The two most prominent milestones in (modern-day) Franco-German cooperation are the Elysée Treaty (1963) and the Aachen Treaty (2019). They foresee cultural, civil society, transborder and political cooperation. Moreover, regular meetings at the Franco-German Parliamentary Assembly and the Franco-German Councils of Ministers actively promote closer Franco-German cooperation on the institutional level. Far more than just symbolic, these provide an opportunity for both countries to get better acquainted in terms of institutional cultures. Franco-German cooperation is seen as a laboratory of ideas for the EU as a whole: for instance, increased convergence in social and economic matters may be transposed to the EU level. One major cornerstone of this cooperation is the European Recovery plan of 750 bn EUR based on a Franco-German agreement. It is a major achievement for the EU, particularly as it will be financed by common debt.
Torn Between National Interest & European Ambitions – A Succession of Missed Opportunities
At the outset, France and Germany have a significantly different understanding of the role the EU should play. France considers the EU as a springboard for its ambitions in international politics, based on functioning institutions providing for swift action to address challenges posed by re-emerging great power rivalry. Germany, for its part, regards the EU as an enlarged home base to produce and sell German products, which helps to strengthen its economic and trade power based on German companies’ intricately intertwined value chains.
The two neighbouring countries also have significantly different views on partnerships, which their positions on the role of NATO and the transatlantic relationship within the European security architecture illustrate. While Germany was increasingly eager to refocus on the EU during Donald Trump’s presidency — when transatlantic relations were put under strain and after Brexit — this has become far less of a priority following Joe Biden’s election. The recent debate about “strategic autonomy” has demonstrated this in a very prominent way. The failure to converge — despite the many outstretched hands, such as the proposals formulated by Emmanuel Macron at the Sorbonne in 2017 (the creation of a European agency for innovation, furthering multilingualism through university exchange programs at great scale, and more fiscal and social harmonisation, among others) — leaves an aftertaste of missed opportunities.
Elections in Germany and France – Toward the Unknown
Refocusing attention on domestic politics after the fresh impetus gained at the EU level as a response to the coronavirus crisis will relegate EU politics to the background. German parliamentary elections in September will be followed by presidential and parliamentary elections in France next year. Yet, although France is simultaneously going to hold the EU presidency, the agenda will be constrained due to precedence given to domestic politics. If election forecasts are to be given credence, the next German chancellor will be decidedly pro-European. Still, potential kingmakers such as the far left or the Liberals are not to be underestimated as they will have an impact on the orientation Germany will take on public spending, foreign affairs, and defense politics. In France, the outgoing President is being hounded by the far right. The role of the Left and the Right, considerably weakened during the 2017 elections, is still unclear.
The extent to which the handling of the coronavirus crisis will be relevant for voters adds volatility to these elections. It is doubtless, however, that it is relevant for the Franco-German tandem. The coronavirus crisis has widened the gap in public finances between France and Germany, which may also unbalance their relationship and reduce France’s political room for maneuver. What will prevail: prioritizing economics and budgetary consolidation or following an ambitious digital and ecological transformation path? The answer to this question will be paramount and highly dependent on the political reshuffling in both countries.
France and Germany in the face of a New Geopolitical Paradigm – No Room for Doubt
Increased great power rivalry between the USA and China, challenges in its neighbourhood posed by Russia and Turkey, and dealing with the influence of China, Russia, and Turkey in the Western Balkans are but some of the issues the EU needs to address. While finding common ground in condemning human rights and international law violations has sometimes proven difficult, France and Germany were able to launch the Alliance for Multilateralism to address the current stalemate in international institutions and uphold an international rules-based order.
Moreover, in response to other countries’ industrial support to their national companies, policies and instruments are being implemented to keep the EU apace with technological innovation, where other powers are becoming increasingly competitive. Also, shielding the EU from extraterritorial measures, coercion tactics, and asymmetric market practices — which erode the EU’s and its economic actors’ strengths — has become highly topical. Initiatives from the European Commission, France, and Germany in these regards are receiving increased attention on a broader European scale.
France and Germany have been able to put aside their historic rivalry by becoming the EU’s main protagonists. Their cooperation is tight and multilayered (at the head of state, administration, and citizen levels). Far more than symbolic, this cooperation has resulted in concrete proposals which could be expanded to the rest of the EU. French and German decision-makers are, however, torn between domestic interests and European ambition. Thus, Franco-German cooperation has been cyclical with domestic politics often taking precedence. Expectations towards the EU being high, the elections in Germany and France are receiving increased attention. Current geopolitical changes and their implications in a wide range of domains — such as human rights, innovation, or trade —require increased Franco-German — and European — convergence and global-actorness. Turning a blind eye to these evolutions would be reckless and fraught with consequences the EU will no longer be able to master. Today more than ever, close cooperation in innovation, technology, infrastructure — but also foreign affairs to address current and future digital ecological and geopolitical challenges — is paramount. The Strategic Compass and the Conference on the Future of Europe, where Germany and France play active roles, are an opportunity to formulate adequate proposals, provided there is enough political will.