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Jun 30, 2021

In Search of the Next Partner

French President Emmanuel Macron has banked on Franco-German cooperation, an approach that finally proved successful in 2020. With Angela Merkel leaving the scene, he needs to build bridges to her potential successors, and quickly.

Armin Laschet, Angela Merkel, and Emmanuel Macron
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For months, French President Emmanuel Macron has not tired of repeating it: until the last minute, his partner in Franco-German cooperation will remain Chancellor Angela Merkel.

He has said so on several occasions, most recently on May 31, 2021 at the last Franco-German Council of Ministers with Merkel: “We will continue to work together for several months. So, we have not finished the common work … There is still a lot of work to be done internationally, at European level, and for our countries.” Two weeks later, Macron had dinner with Chancellor Merkel in Berlin to prepare for the next European Council—thus reviving an old tradition of Franco-German cooperation that had been put on hold because of the COVID-19 crisis. Economic recovery, the health situation, and relations with Turkey and Russia were on the agenda. The message: business as usual.

Macron has good reasons not to rush to turn the “Merkel page.” Firstly, the German election on September 26 is no foregone conclusion, and it would be awkward to show preferences now. From the long-winded negotiations to form a new government in 2017-18, including the failure of the so-called “Jamaica” coalition of Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU,) the Greens, and the pro-business Free Democrats (FDP), if not before, policymakers in Paris know that everything is possible until a government agreement has been signed. So, precipitation could be counterproductive. Moreover, at a time of severe international instability, the French president has every interest in playing the stability card. What’s more, Merkel enjoys high levels of popularity in France, which the French government is not reluctant to share, especially as the country has entered an election period.

Secondly, and most importantly, after a long time of stalemate and frustration, the French president is satisfied with the cooperation with Germany. Certainly during the German EU Council presidency in the second half of 2020, both sides worked together closely. In particular the Franco-German compromise of May 2020 on the European Recovery Fund, which served as the basis for the European agreement, fulfilled an old French demand—that of investing in Europe’s future through a common debt mechanism. When it comes to industrial policy, there is also a good atmosphere between Economy Minister Peter Altmaier and his French counterpart, Bruno Le Maire. Macron intends to take full advantage of this momentum, which the German election could upset.

The President Is Looking Around

However, working closely together in the late-found “Merkron” format does not prevent the president and his team from having a look around. For some time now, they have been following developments in German politics very closely and scrutinizing the positions of the main parties on European and foreign policy. In this context, the Greens have caught the Élysée’s eye—not only because they represent a new trend, which has no equivalent in France, but also because they position themselves as deeply pro-Europeans. This makes them potential allies for the Macronist European reform project, for which much remains to be done. Among its many projects, which will also be on the agenda of the French EU Council presidency in the first half of 2022, there is the reform of the Schengen area, the implementation and follow-up of the Conference on the Future of Europe, the promotion of European tech giants, and stronger European involvement in the Sahel, including the consolidation of the “Takuba” task force, not to mention the ambitious dossier of strategic autonomy.

The “sniffing out” of the best-placed candidates has been going on for a while, and the chronology of the meetings is perhaps not random. The Green leadership duo, Annalena Baerbock and Robert Habeck, were set to be received at the presidential palace as early as October 2019, but the visit was postponed because of diary difficulties. It finally took place during an informal dinner at the Munich Security Conference in February 2020. In September of the same year, it was the turn of the CDU’s Armin Laschet to meet Macron. At the time, he was neither party leader nor “candidate for chancellor,” but his function as plenipotentiary for Franco-German cultural relations opened doors for him in Paris. And in February 2021, when the “K question” was still open, CSU leader and Bavarian Prime Minister Markus Söder held a video conference with Macron and noted “great similarities” between them, especially on digital policy and technological sovereignty. As for the SPD’s candidate, Vice Chancellor and Finance Minister Olaf Scholz, he is a regular at Franco-German meetings anyway.

A “Dream Candidate”

For now, the French government has every reason to be satisfied with the way things are going in Germany. The first piece of good news was the result of the CDU leadership vote–when Laschet triumphed over Friedrich Merz, who is opposed to any further financial distribution within the EU. Foreign affairs spokesman Norbert Röttgen, who came third, would certainly have been an appreciated ally of Paris, too. His deep knowledge of international issues would have been an asset for the Franco-German strategic dialogue—known to be difficult due to the different traditions in security and defense policy. But Laschet was certainly the most France-compatible. Michaela Wiegel, Paris correspondent of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, even called him the “dream candidate” (Wunschkandidat).

Laschet is embedded in the Franco-German structures and has an integrationist approach toward European policy. He is probably not a visionary, but he seems open to French ideas for Europe, and that is not bad at all. In the corridors of the Élysée palace, his praise of Macron’s European project (“He is right: the citizens want more Europe, for example in internal security, in the fight against terrorism, Islamism, money laundering, or human trafficking,” he told INTERNATIONALE POLITIK QUARTERLY in February 2021), as well as his demands for closer European cooperation in foreign and security, did not go unnoticed. Particularly well received in Paris was Laschet’s call in June for “greater burden-sharing” in Africa and the Mediterranean, at a time when Macron had just announced the end of the French operation “Barkhane” against Salafist jihadist armed groups in the Sahel region.

Boosting European Policy

For Paris, the second piece of good news is that the Greens’ likely participation in the next federal government—whatever form it takes—could give Germany’s European policy a boost. Of course, the Greens and Macron do not see eye-to-eye on all issues, certainly not on energy policy or military affairs. Still, the French president is hoping for the Greens to act as a counterweight to the CDU on economic and budgetary issues, in particular on the continuation of the common debt mechanism that was introduced during the COVID-19 crisis. While France is traditionally in favor of this and is counting on this historical step to bring about a lasting paradigm shift, the German government only agreed to the establishment of the mechanism on a one-off basis: there was an unprecedented crisis, and the EU’s internal market was in danger; this required an exceptional solution. According to this very pragmatic logic, the economic recovery makes the mechanism obsolete.

Another sensitive issue for Franco-German cooperation is the return to a balanced budget once the crisis has abated. Even the most ardent defenders of budgetary orthodoxy in Germany showed flexibility during the COVID-19 crisis. However, the suspension of the constitutionally enshrined debt brake (Schuldenbremse), which limits the government’s new borrowing to 0.35 percent of GDP, until 2023 and the suspension of the Maastricht criteria of limited public debt to 60 percent of GDP, still had its critics. Conversely, there are increasing demands in France for the repeal of the Maastricht convergence criteria and an overhaul of the EU’s budgetary framework, which Paris may wish to take up during its EU Council presidency. On these two issues, France will need allies both outside and inside Germany.

In this, the Greens look like Macron’s best potential allies. The Green parliamentary group in the Bundestag is in favor of making the common debt mechanism permanent and of building a European fiscal union, saying “In the wake of the recovery fund in the EU budget, we call for an additional stabilization instrument of an effective macroeconomic scale, so that difficult crises like the coronavirus pandemic do not catch us unprepared in the future.” However, in their recently finalized election platform, the topic is not addressed. There is only mention of reforming the debt brake in the Basic Law (“shaping it in line with the times”), so that greater investment is made possible again.

A New Period

Since launching his election campaign in 2017, Macron has systematically banked on the Franco-German relationship. He has had many disappointments, but also some successes, notably the European Recovery Fund. He is now entering a new period, during which good cooperation with Germany is still essential. His own campaign for presidential re-election in May 2022 is expected to be difficult. Macron could once again face the leader of the far-right National Rally, Marine Le Pen, who has learned the lessons of the last duel and has put water in her euroskeptic wine: Leaving the euro and the EU are no longer among her demands, which makes her more agreeable to voters and therefore more dangerous. More than ever, Macron needs to prove that he delivered and will continue to do so—particularly on European issues, on which he has built his political credibility.

The French presidency of the EU Council in the first half of 2022 offers him a unique opportunity for this, which he intends to take. It will be all the more tempting to present himself as “President of Europe” since Angela Merkel with her legendary experience of European summits will no longer be sitting by his side. In fact, the French president is not lacking in ideas, energy, or networks. But the flamboyant tone he cultivates and his ambitious plans for Europe have also irritated a number of European partners, and are likely to continue to do so. In the EU, the most effective leadership is shared leadership, and there is no better way to achieve this than through Franco-German cooperation. The question is whether the new German government will be ready in time—and will stand side-by-side with the French president.

Claire Demesmay is head of the France and Franco-German Relations Program at the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP).

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