Recalibrating the Franco-German Engine
French President Emmanuel Macron is seeking to provide fresh impetus to the Franco-German partnership. Yet to avail of the opportunities ahead the duo needs to also open up to others in Europe.
Spring 2023 Issue: The China Challenge
The re-election of French President Emmanuel Macron comes at a time of a global economic tendency toward isolation and the progressive erosion of the multilateral rule-based order—accelerated and exacerbated by the coronavirus crisis and the Russian war in Ukraine. This leads to both opportunities for the Franco-German partnership, but also new challenges. The ongoing developments could even weaken the Franco-German alliance if vital cooperation with other European Union partners does not succeed.
For Macron, in a world with two strong power blocs led by the United States and China, the question arises as to whether the European Union can still take on the role of an autonomous player internationally, but also internally (key words: political unity, digital dependencies). In view of these developments, Macron has been pushing the EU themes of European sovereignty or strategic autonomy with firm conviction since he took office in 2017. The initial resistance to these plans from Northern and Eastern Europe, including Germany, has since diminished, and under the French Council presidency the EU has, for the first time, drawn up the Strategic Compass for its joint foreign policy.
In addition, apart from Macron, no leaders are assertively developing major initiatives for the European project at the moment. His re-election has strengthened him, and he can drive forward the strategic development of the EU. The lack of an absolute majority in the National Assembly certainly complicates matters, as the government will have to seek compromises especially on budgetary issues and structural reforms, which also have a European dimension. But in the end, the president remains in charge of international policy, and Macron is not expected to change his European course. He outlined his ideas on this to the European Parliament on Europe Day 2022, emphasizing: “More European independence and sovereignty—that’s what we need.”
The focus is first and foremost on his personal mission to end the Russian war in Ukraine and to create a new post-war order in Europe, by means of long talks with all relevant players, not least with Russian President Vladimir Putin. As a permanent member and the only remaining EU nuclear power on the UN Security Council, the country has a prominent position here, for example, in relation to France's status as the guarantor power of a future Ukrainian-Russian peace treaty. The security policy Zeitenwende (“turning point”) in Germany and also in Scandinavian countries is opening up new opportunities for greater security integration in Europe, which are also relevant for industrial policy—especially in the area of armaments cooperation.
In his speech on Europe, Macron called for "rethinking the geography and organization of our continent." Rejecting hasty EU accessions, he revived the concept of a multi-speed Europe to link the EU’s neighboring territories more closely to the EU, making it more capable of taking action before further accessions. Here, the French president sees opportunities for closer cooperation in the areas of energy, transport, investment, infrastructure, passenger transport, and youth. He explicitly mentioned the United Kingdom as well as plans for closer cooperation formats within the EU, particularly the eurozone.
The European Green Deal, in other words turning away from fossil fuels, has also become even more urgent for Macron after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. At the same time, France sees itself as less affected by the need to stop using Russian fossil energy than Germany, for example, due to a strong nuclear energy sector, and is stepping up its global leadership efforts on decarbonization, including as a host nation to the Paris Agreement.
Germany in Demand
For all these ambitious projects, Macron urgently needs a reliable Germany. During his first term, he did try to diversify France's partnerships in Europe, especially with Italy, with which France concluded the Quirinal Treaty in November 2021. Similarly, under Macron's leadership, Paris has turned more than before to Eastern Europe—though this does not preclude significant tensions, particularly with Poland and Hungary. Germany, however, remains France’s most important partner, and it cannot do without it in this time of crisis.
At present, the conditions are favorable for Franco-German bilateralism. After the recent elections, staunch integrationists are in power in the Elysée Palace and the Chancellery in Berlin. Moreover, under the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine, Germany has moved closer to the French analysis of European sovereignty. While German policymakers do not go as far as their French counterparts in calling for autonomy, they recognize the need to develop European capacity to act in certain strategic areas. Finally, the timing is favorable because both countries have a window of opportunity before the 2024 European Parliament elections and the 2025 Bundestag elections, and because the 60th anniversary of the Elysée Treaty in January 2023 compels them to present a set of sufficiently ambitious proposals.
Even if the conditions for Franco-German bilateralism are favorable, mutual reassurance is needed to avoid misunderstandings. This is all the more necessary today, as personal contacts have loosened significantly during the pandemic and a change of political personnel has taken place, both in the ministries and in the Franco-German Parliamentary Assembly.
Moreover, the new German coalition of the Social Democrats, Greens, and Free Democrats is struggling to clarify its political line and send clear messages, both internally and externally. With the return of war, major certainties were shaken for Germany, whether with regard to its economic model or its security policy, which it had practically delegated to the US and with which, unlike its French neighbor, it was not much concerned.
On geopolitical issues, Paris and Berlin have been engaged in a difficult dialogue for years. The Russian threat may bring them closer together, and Chancellor Olaf Scholz's watershed speech is good news in this regard. The crucial question remains, however, whether the agreed budget efforts will be accompanied by the ability and willingness to become more involved in military strategic issues and also to act as a military force. In Paris, one particular question is how the German government will position itself on issues of European versus transatlantic defense and whether it will take joint industrial projects in the armaments sector seriously. To play a role in a crisis-ridden world, the Franco-German partnership must come to grips with the realities of the world, however daunting they may be. On this point, much depends on Germany. While Macron aspires to a leadership position in Europe, he can achieve little without a clear, solid, and reliable German partner. From this perspective, criticism from Central and Eastern Europe and the United States, of a hesitant or even complacent Germany, could indirectly weaken French projects, as they actually contain a Franco-German component.
The Risk of Marginalization
To get their cooperation back on track, Paris and Berlin must also open up more to their European partners. The war in Ukraine is shifting the balance in Europe and shifting the EU's center of gravity. Poland in particular, but also other countries such as the Baltic states, are raising their voices, while security policy is seeing a repositioning of Sweden, Finland, and Denmark, whose population has just voted by a large majority in favor of participation in the European Security and Defense Policy.
In the eastern regions of Europe, France and Germany are being heavily criticized for their lack of resolve toward Moscow. For example, Macron and Scholz's long exchange with Putin at the end of May was received very negatively. Taking better account of the historical experiences and political sensitivities of these countries is important for the credibility of Franco-German leadership and thus for its clout within the bloc. If the Franco-German partnership fails to become more open to others, it could quickly be marginalized.
In this regard, the idea of a “European Political Community” proposed by the French president offers fresh impetus for rethinking interactions between the EU and countries on Europe's periphery. It could also facilitate the involvement of the United Kingdom which, since Brexit, has been trying to regain a diplomatic role in Europe. However, this is a medium-term project that still requires much conceptual work. Until then, trilateral and multilateral formats around the Franco-German partnership remain essential—but without the institutionalization of, for example, the Weimar Triangle. What is important here is that France and Germany take the position of listeners and question some of their certainties. One prime example here is the joint Franco-Italo-German mission to Kyiv that paved the way for the EU granting accession candidate status to both Ukraine and Moldova.
Whether the two countries will rise to this challenge remains to be seen. One thing is certain, however: In a time of geopolitical upheaval and doubt, fueled by the decoupling of China and the United States, and amid the uncertainty surrounding the US elections in 2024, an ambitious, coordinated and, at the same time open, Franco-German partnership is indispensable.
Claire Demesmay is head of the Intercultural Education and Training Department at the Franco-German Youth Office and a researcher at the Centre Marc Bloch.
Klemens Kober is Director of Trade Policy at the Association of German Chambers of Industry and Commerce.