Jun 30, 2020

Germany Is Becoming More French—and Paris Is Loving It

The German government is increasingly adopting a French outlook on economics and geopolitics. The stars are aligning for a renaissance of the Franco-German tandem.

An illustration of Emmanuel Macron above Montmartre

It’s not quite time to pop the champagne. The €750 billion EU recovery plan proposed by the European Commission is still just a plan. Despite municipal elections last Sunday, President Emmanuel Macron jetted to The Hague to have dinner with Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte. Getting the recovery plan across the line is the Élysée’s top priority.

But if one thing is already being celebrated in Paris it is the return of the Franco-German “history-making” tandem. The Franco-German special relationship is particularly special for Paris. If it is alive and kicking, it boosts the French president’s standing and helps build acceptance for EU integration at home. If the chancellory ghosts the Élysée, France’s president is demasked as an emperor without clothes. Europe suddenly looks like a bad idea to the French.

Regardless of its final shape, the fact that France and Germany put forward an ambitious recovery proposal is thus already a huge “win” for Macron. Finally, Berlin is lending its full weight to an EU initiative launched by Paris. Finally, Macron can credibly claim to be an equal to Angela Merkel. Finally, Macron has a killer argument against the nationalists and left-wing EU skeptics. In Paris, one joke says that Macron might write “€750 billion” in bold letters on his 2022 campaign bus.

And what heightens the excitement is that the recovery program may just be the starting point of a Franco-German renaissance. Indeed, the stars are aligning. The United Kingdom is gone. Merkel has recouped her authority at home. And Berlin’s views—from economics to geopolitics—are becoming more French by the day.

Macronian Merkel

On June 18, Chancellor Merkel presented her priorities for Germany’s Presidency of the EU to the Bundestag. This was no pretty-pragmatic stuff. In a Macronian manner, Merkel painted with broad brushes and outlined her 30,000 foot view of the world and Europe’s place in it.

And like Macron, Merkel believes to inhabit a planet in full transformation, where everything is connected and European action is urgent: be it on tackling COVID-19, stopping climate change, creating new economy jobs, fighting anti-democrats and dealing with China at eye level. In fact, the speech is the chancellor’s first substantial response to Macron.

Merkel said things like, "How Europe copes with this pandemic compared to other regions will determine the prosperity of Europe’s citizens and its role in the world.” In advocating the EU economic recovery program, the chancellor argued, “To support a sustainable (economic) development in all of Europe’s regions is also a political instrument against populists and radicals.“

And finally, “Maybe Europe suffers because we have taken it for granted for too long, because we … left talking about Europe to its opponents instead of making it the core of the political debate. This requires critique and impatience, just as Europe needs imagination and common spirit.”

This is triple distilled Macron. The impatient president is convinced that the world is in a disruptive phase where the cards are being reshuffled and Europe must rise to its potential. He has long argued that more European solidarity is not only an economic, but above all a political imperative. To take on euroskepticism, he went on the offensive in his 2017 presidential campaign and made Europe the core and center of his political message.

Sovereign Merkel

But it is not enough for both Merkel and Macron to believe that Europe is at a turning point. Just as important is that the two also seem to agree more than any time before on the direction of travel: building that “sovereign Europe.”

“To ensure the economic success of Europe and its capacity to act, Europe needs to become technologically and digitally sovereign,” Merkel told the Bundestag. And to do this, Germany is going full steam ahead on industrial policy. Repatriating European pharma production capacities, creating a Franco-German cloud computing provider, launching a European battery and hydrogen industry, investing in European 5G research, revising the EU’s competition law, upgrading the EU’s trade defense measures and restricting foreign direct investments: all of this is music to French ears.

Moreover, Merkel thinks Europe needs to up its game fast. “We know that others in the world do not rest but act very decisively and very robustly," she said. Unlike in 2009, there is no time to waste by letting an external shock develop into a decade-long sovereign debt crisis weakening the EU on the economic and geopolitical front. Hence the recovery program.

With the United States currently AWOL and now China pivoting from panda to wolf-warrior diplomacy, Merkel has embraced Macron’s sovereign Europe narrative. And with it Berlin is moving away from the ordoliberal tradition that sees the state primarily as a setter of market rules and closer to a French conception of the state as conductor of economic life.

Just the Beginning?

Of course this doesn’t mean that France and Germany are now on the same page on everything. Just think Russia, Turkey, and Libya. And it also doesn’t mean that the long-standing differences in the two countries’ political cultures are resolved.

The primacy of politics over the economy is a historic continuity in France. German politicians still tend to prioritize economics over politics. And Berlin still feels uncomfortable with deficit spending and certainly doesn’t want to embrace a French-style activist foreign policy potentially backed up by military force.

But Merkel now thinks that Europe needs to up the ante on its defensive capabilities so that it is less susceptible to blackmail. And she believes that a more state-centric economic model is what is needed not only for fighting pandemics, geopolitical survival, and organizing the Green transition, but also to ensure economic success. 

With this rapprochement of thinking, the Franco-German renaissance may still have some  way to go. Especially as the sovereignty theme not only works in Berlin, but also with the critics of the recovery program. The Netherland’s Rutte, too, wants the EU to learn to play power politics, as he outlined in a remarkable Churchill lecture in Zurich. Sweden, in open conflict with Beijing over the abduction of a Swedish national, believes it was a bad idea to invite China to invest in Europe’s debt-ridden south in 2009. Denmark doesn’t want to hand its 5G network to Huawei.

If the EU is about to overcome a decade of integration deadlock, it is not only because of the imperative of the current crisis. It is also because Macron’s European sovereignty paradigm is becoming mainstream and thereby giving the EU a new sense of purpose. And with this new collective goal on the horizon, there is once again more room for compromise.

Joseph de Weck is a journalist and historian based in Paris. He consults on geopolitical and macroeconomic risk and writes the monthly Pariscope column for INTERNATIONALE POLITIK QUARTERLY.

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