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Jun 26, 2024

A Weakened Franco-German Engine Can Still Power Europe

Paris and Berlin need to find new ways to drive Europe forward despite their diverging visions—and uncertainty over elections. 

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, French Foreign and European Affairs Minister Stephane Sejourne and Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski walk in a park on the day of the Weimar Triangle meeting in Weimar, Germany, May 22, 2024.
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French President Emmanuel Macron’s state visit to Germany in May sent an encouraging signal: Despite their obvious differences, in style and on substance, the French and German leaders showed a clear willingness to work constructively to address the dauting challenges facing their countries and Europe as a whole. Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz published a joint op-ed in the Financial Times laying out a joint vision on how to “strengthen European sovereignty,” and held a joint press conference following a Franco-German ministers council, displaying a shared resolve to support Ukraine.

Unfortunately for Emmanuel Macron and Olaf Scholz, this momentum has been short-lived. Their respective political parties, Renaissance and the Social Democrats (SPD), had hugely disappointing European Parliament elections. This blatant exposure of their domestic weaknesses already undermined their aspirations for continental leadership. Worse, Macron’s decision to call snap elections has created the prospect of the far-right Rassemblement National (RN) winning the upcoming legislative elections and possible fielding France’s next prime minister. RN’s rise to power could further strain the already fragile Franco-German relationship. The deeply euroskeptic party has previously objected to joint Franco-German defense projects and wants to “change” (read: dismantle) the European Union from within.

In the meantime, other sources of power and leadership have emerged in Europe and have been reinforced by the recent European elections: There include the European Union institutions and most notably the European Commission, with Ursula von der Leyen poised to a second term. There is also Georgia Meloni’s Italy and Donald Tusk’s Poland.

As a result, France and Germany share a structural challenge. They need to find their place in a Europe that is undergoing fundamental transformations. As it stands, the fabled Franco-German “engine” that used to power European integration might be both less needed and less desired. Given the uncertainties in France and the general election in Germany next year, it is likely that the two leaders will be even more consumed by domestic politics than they already are.

However, it is hard to imagine a similarly powerful alternative given the combined economic, military, and political heft of France and Germany. Considering the massive security challenges and fundamental questions that Europe faces today, Berlin and Paris must design a new working relationship driven by outcomes. They should also acknowledge the growing “multipolarity” of Europe and strive to build collective agendas. This might imply transitioning to a “hybrid engine,” acknowledging that a Europe with very diverse, but coordinated sources of power can still be a Europe on the move. In other words: A hybrid Franco-German engine could draw on the respective strengths of both countries and use them in a complementary and coordinated manner rather than aiming for convergence on all issues at any price. 

The Changing Map

The war in Ukraine has reshuffled the cards when it comes to European leadership. On the one hand, France is praised for shifting to a more realistic approach to the threat posed by Russia, but criticized for not doing enough concretely to support its leadership claims. On the other hand, Germany has discretely established itself as the second-biggest provider of military support to Ukraine but keeps being lambasted for refusing to supply Kyiv with the critical capabilities that it needs the most, out of fear of uncontrolled escalation. 

In the meantime, other centers of power have emerged. First, European Union institutions have stepped up, and Brussels seems eager to live up to the ambition of a more “geopolitical EU.” Second, the war has shifted the center of attention—if not yet of gravity—to Eastern Europe. Some countries have raised their profile, starting with Poland, a frontline country and crucial logistics hub for the military support to Ukraine, which is now investing massively in its defense (it will be spending 4 percent of its GDP on defense soon) and aspires to be a new European powerhouse. Some countries such as Estonia and the Czech Republic are punching above their weight, pushing for initiatives to procure vital ammunitions for Ukraine, in the absence of Franco-German leadership. At the same time, the United Kingdom, which eight years ago opted for self-isolation, is showing increasing signs of interest in forging a new pact with the rest of continent. With the Labour Party poised to win the UK general election on July 4, a “tilt back” to Europe is likely to figure among its top priorities.  

In this increasingly “multipolar” Europe, the traditional Franco-German leadership will be increasingly challenged. Nevertheless, France and Germany will still be indispensable to delivering meaningful outcomes, given their combined economic, military, and demographic importance. 

For the Franco-German tandem to remain relevant, it needs at least two things: to have a functional bilateral relationship that weathers the impact of respective national elections; and to find a way to carry forward a shared European and foreign policy agenda when they agree, and to deconflict divergences when they disagree.  

Elections-proofing the Franco-German Relationship

The stability of the Franco-German relationship had gone unquestioned for 15 years, while Angela Merkel was the German chancellor. This does not mean that there were not tense moments with Paris, but she found a way to work with four successive French presidents (Jacques Chirac, Nicolas Sarkozy, François Hollande, and Emmanuel Macron), even though this cooperation was often a pragmatic one rather than driven by enthusiasm for Franco-German cooperation. The election of Olaf Scholz as chancellor has ushered in a new era, in which the Franco-German was not as much of a priority, and in which the two leaders never really clicked. 

In addition, Russia’s war against Ukraine has deepened the rifts between France and Germany rather than bringing them closer. While Germany’s conclusion from the Russian attack on Ukraine has been that the United States has an indispensable role when it comes to European defense, France sees its calls for a stronger, more independent European defense as validated. The public quarrel over President Macron’s controversial statement that “boots on the ground in Ukraine” should not be ruled out have further highlighted the depth of the divergences between Paris and Berlin. 

Macron’s postponed state visit to Germany, which finally took place in late May, was meant to display a shared ambition to overcome the bilateral difficulties and to show what an overhauled Franco-German engine can deliver for Europe. The visit was hailed as a success—not only because of the videos and photos showing Macron addressing crowd of Germans in German, but also because the visit led to concrete progress. 

The conclusions from the Franco-German Ministerial Council underline significant progress in joint air defense with the Next Generation Weapon System (NGWS), which followed the signature of the Memorandum of Understanding launching the first phase of the long-stalled Main Ground Combat System (MGCS) in April. Most importantly, the “new agenda to boost competitiveness and growth in the European Union” is the first comprehensive Franco-German agenda in years and includes concrete proposals on a capital union, technology, and economic security. This is an important starting point to move the European agenda forward, and a responsible commitment to make the best of these two distinct sources of power for the future of the continent.

Now the European Parliament elections have brought this new momentum to a halt. The debacle of Emmanuel Macron’s party, Renaissance, being outperformed by the far-right Rassemblement National (RN), led the French president to call snap elections. The outcome of these elections poses grave questions regarding the direction of French foreign, European, and defense policy. Even if these remains largely in the hands of the Élysée, albeit rather by political custom than constitution, a government led by the far-right could seriously affect relations with Berlin. 

RN has taken stances critical of the European Union, of NATO, and even of Franco-German joint industrial projects. In its effort “de-demonize” and normalize the party, RN has recently toned down its polices and even removed previous statements from its website. Nevertheless, if the RN wins the legislative elections, it will be even harder to find bilateral common ground, especially at the ministerial level, which has been the most productive and effective these past two years, owing to particularly good working relations between the French and German foreign and defense ministers.

Despite these uncertainties, it is too early to scrap the Franco-German engine, and there is a good case to be made for rejigging it as a “hybrid engine.” It has always been thanks to competing visions, and not in spite of them, that the Franco-German engine was able to advance Europe in the past: It was the art of compromise in practice. When France and Germany managed to overcome their differences, they were able to forge broader coalitions and bring other Europeans on board.

With the specter of a potential second Trump presidency in the United States, the ongoing aggression of Russia, and a continuously deteriorating security environment, there is an urgent need to get the Franco-German engine going again. 

A New Method: Enlargement, Trust, and Complementarity

France and Germany need a new method: one that allows the two countries to advance resolutely and effectively when they see eye to eye and that allows them to leave aside the points of friction. It all starts with strategic clarity. 

Emmanuel Macron’s vision for Europe has been clearly laid out in his second Sorbonne speech. The ball is now in Scholz’ court: While his 2022 Prague speech included several measures, so far he has failed to present a clear vision of the future of Europe. A critical breaking point for the Franco-German relationship was the fact that former Chancellor Angela Merkel never came up with a German answer to Macron’s first Sorbonne speech in 2017—and thereby simply wasted the momentum for a new Franco-German moment. Europe cannot afford to see Scholz to repeat this mistake. 

A new method could then revolve around three elements: enlargement, trust, and complementarity. 

First, enlargement: Now that Paris has shifted to a position closer to that of Berlin, especially when it comes to the “West Balkan Six,” the next phase of EU enlargement might be the single most consequential challenge that the two governments will face. This is one of the issues where an RN-led government could prove problematic, given the far right’s hostility to further EU enlargement.

France and Germany should also “enlarge” their perspectives beyond Europe: They might diverge now on Ukraine strategy, fiscal rules, or the role of nuclear energy, but on the other defining issues of the century such as the fight against climate change, the reform of multilateralism, social justice, and the digital transformation, their views are among the closest among the G7 and G20 countries. 

 On the critical issue of the challenges posed by China, Berlin and Paris may also have divergent tactical positions on specific topics, as recently illustrated by the case of putting tariffs on Chinese-made electric vehicles. But when it comes to the bigger picture, they both agree on the need for Europe to avoid falling victim to the increasingly confrontational competition between China and the United States, and therefore to find a balance between de-risking and engagement vis-à-vis China. 

Finally, the Franco-German engine needs an “enlargement” itself amid a changing European order. The “Weimar” format with Poland stands out as a very promising avenue to co-transform leadership in Europe; there is also the chance of renewing ties with the United Kingdom. Berlin, London, Paris, and Warsaw could become a new driving force for Europe, applying the Franco-German engine to a “four-wheel drive.” Particularly on Ukraine, Italy needs to be part of the central discussions within the EU as well. 

Second, trust: A fair amount of bilateral bad blood is the result of malpractices or misbehavior on both sides, from Macron’s uncoordinated launch of the European Political Community to Scholz failing to seek France’s inclusion in the European Sky Shield Initiative. The Paris Conference on Ukraine in February was a case in point, with Macron publicly mocking Scholz’ repeated hesitations on stepping up support for Ukraine, followed by Scholz tweeting his sharp rebuke of Macron’s idea of sending troops to Ukraine. This could all be easily avoided by a joint commitment to a “no-surprise policy,” whereby both leaders take a step back from heated debates and quick statements to avoid mutual and collective embarrassment in public. The choreography of German leaders praising Macron’s second Sorbonne speech in mid-April, despite its content being at odds with many German positions, clearly shows that it was coordinated in advance, which is an encouraging signal.

Third, complementarity: The two countries should rekindle one of the distinctive features of their relationship, i.e., the ability to turn deep-seated differences into complementarities. On critical policy fields, such as industrial policy, energy, security, and defense, finding compromises will arguably be challenging and require commitments from both sides. However, a Franco-German understanding is still by far the best way to bring other Europeans on board and shape a consensual European agenda. 

On security and defense, despite their structural divergence on the respective importance of the “European” and “transatlantic” component of European defense, it was Paris and Berlin that gave the impulse for the reflection process on the future of NATO that led to the alliance’s new Strategic Concept as well as the EU’s Strategic Compass, both adopted in 2022. 

France and Germany should now push for manifest ways of showing what a “stronger European pillar of NATO” means in practice, a concept that both Macron and Scholz use. They could also aim at a Franco-German understanding on the future of the European security architecture ahead of the discussion on a new “security framework” that Macron wants to have at the next European Political Community summit, which takes places in the UK in July. Even on Ukraine, as eloquently argued by Michel Duclos and Joseph de Weck in Internationale Politik Quarterly, a more conciliatory look from Berlin and Paris at their respective constraints should allow France and Germany to agree on a “plan for Ukraine.” 

Finally, on other key issues such as energy, industry, and trade, Paris and Berlin now largely agree on the need to reduce one-sided dependencies, after the COVID-19 pandemic, the start of Russia’s war against Ukraine, and in light of intensifying US-China competition. France and Germany must come up with an agenda for European sovereignty. 

Certainly, a lot of positive energy has been lost as a result of the European elections outcomes in France and Germany. However, one idea of a “hybrid Franco-German engine” is also that the sources of power complement each other when one of them risks running out of steam. Accordingly, Germany should not only work on engaging with France bilaterally, but also in enlarged leadership formats, for example with Poland and the UK. 

The parliamentary elections in France are likely to determine to what extent France can contribute to the critical agenda for Europe in the years to come. Depending on the outcome, other Europeans, and most importantly the Germans, must ensure that France’s capability to shape this agenda in a way benefitting the European project is not impeded by their lack of responsiveness and engagement. 

Mathieu Droin is a visiting fellow in the Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, DC.

Gesine Weber is a fellow on German Marshall Fund’s (GMF) Geostrategy team, based in Paris.

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