Jan 06, 2021

When Opposites Don’t Attract

The French president is strengthening his military and wants Berlin to do the same. But real “sovereignty” in security is for the future. When it comes to getting stuff done, Emmanuel Macron is betting on the United States rather than Germany.

Emmanuel Macron
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Germans often argue that France just wants Europe to serve its geopolitical ambitions. The French often claim that Germany just wants Europe to serve its economic ambitions.

These views are simplistic. Still, they are not entirely false. Berlin and Paris have different interests in the European project. And looking beyond the European Union’s primary purpose—peace—it is hard to deny that Germany has been better served so far. But fortunately, EU integration is not a zero-sum game.

Yes, the French would have never swallowed the massive step in economic liberalization that the 1986 Single Market Act represented, if it weren’t for the pressures and hopes of Europe. But creating a European market has also been a blessing for French consumers.

And yes, if Germany slowly shakes off its categorical opposition to fiscal integration and if it ever overcomes its uneasy relation to global power politics, it will be due to the pressure and hopes of Europe. But stabilizing the euro and upping the EU’s ability to act on the global stage would also render Germany less susceptible to geo-economic blackmail.

Accommodating your EU partners’ interests often helps you pursue your own—the ones you are not able or willing see. This is a recurring theme in the history of European integration.

Not Sexy

But different emphases regarding national interests do not work automatically as a two-stroke engine helping everyone overcome their blind spots and taboos. In fact, the most persistent obstacle to Germany and France forming a more symbiotic couple are often not differences in the perception of national interests or political will, but differences in attractiveness.

For decades, German and French politicians have nudged their businesses and their armies to work more closely together. The success has been limited, to say the least. There is a common market, but there are still less than a handful of Franco-German industrial champions. There is a common currency, but still no major bi-national bank. And the Franco-German brigade launched by Helmut Kohl and François Mitterrand in 1987 remains, well … a brigade.

When it comes to the economy, French business leaders deplore in private that they are not taken seriously across the Rhine. German business leaders don’t see French companies as attractive partners. It seems more lucrative to cooperate with US or Chinese companies. Silicon Valley and Shenzhen are where the innovation magic is happening, not Aix-en-Provence, right?

Similarly, the French defense establishment is not that keen on the Germans. What can be learnt from and what’s the point of working with an army that does not fight, they ask? Instead, the French defense types look toward the United States. The Americans have the capabilities and experience. “For a long time, the French have been trying to snatch from the United Kingdom the role of the US army’s best student,” the doyen of French military observers Jean-Dominique Merchet told me.

That Military-Industrial Complex

That’s why, despite all the talk and flurry over “European sovereignty,” French President Emmanuel Macron does not place much hope in Europe as a defense actor for the time being.

Sure, Macron championed setting up the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) and the European Defense Fund (EDF) in 2017. He pressured Berlin into launching the Franco-German-Spanish SCAF fighter program. For the jets, he was even willing to let London stand in the rain by abandoning the common drone plane project.

Macron also managed to rally 12 EU member states to join his European Intervention Initiative that is supposed to shape a shared strategic culture in Europe, “creating the preconditions to conduct coordinated and jointly prepared future commitments.”

But Paris stresses that these are baby steps with little practical importance today. For the foreseeable future, defense remains a national domain. Hubert Védrine, Macron’s envoy to the expert group on reforming NATO that was launched after the row over Marcon’s “brain-dead” comments, said in a recent interview, “The term (European sovereignty) is not primarily about the military, but about technology. This has to be our priority.”

Half a Loaf Is Better

For the time being, it is ironically Macron who bets like no other on the US and other non-EU partners to boost deterrence in Europe’s neighborhood.

In his landmark speech on France’s defense strategy in February 2020, the president said “every day in our operations” France is experiencing the importance of the alliance with the US, calling on the Europeans, “Let's accept it! Let's face it, and listen to the US, telling us: ‘Spend more on your security.’”

And spend he does. Macron has increased the military budget by a whopping 22 percent since 2017, from €32.2 billion to €39.2 billion. And the military is given free rein in how to use it, Merchet says. Thirty new helicopters, a second defensive frigate, 120 new light-armored vehicles, there is something for the army, the navy, and the air force. The latest project: €5 billion for a new and larger aircraft carrier to succeed the Charles de Gaulle commissioned in 2001.

“Democracy and the rule of law do not last long without strength,” Macron is convinced. He believes the reduction in military spending in the post-1989 era is a key reason why Europeans find themselves under pressure from strongmen from Moscow to Ankara. And remember the “war on terror” launched by Washington after 9/11? France is actually the only country that still wants to fight it—with the help of NATO. Hardly any other European country places that many hopes in the new US administration being persuadable to reengage in Africa, the Mediterranean, and the Middle East.

Gouverner, C’est Prévoir

For Paris, it is clear that defense will remain primarily a national domain for the foreseeable future. Tellingly, Macron did not offer to Europeanize France’s nuclear deterrent in his landmark speech on defense.

If there is any upside to PESCO and EDF for Paris in the short-term, it is primarily that by getting others to co-invest in European defense projects, France makes itself less dependent on other producers, such as the US, and supports economic development.

And France is undogmatic about today’s military operations. Tellingly again, Paris designed the European intervention initiative not as an EU instrument. It is supposed to assemble the militarily capable and willing. Non-EU members the United Kingdom and Norway are also taking part.

Macron reminiscing about Europe as a sovereign defense actor is about pointing toward the horizon. After all, France is a country of ideas whose eager political science students learn to define good government by the maximgouverner, c’est prévoir, et ne rien prévoir, c’est courrir à sa perte.” (To govern is to foresee, and to foresee nothing is to run to one’s ruin).

But even if Germany were truly on board, what can Berlin bring to the table? The lack of relative attractiveness and differences in capabilities, be it economically or militarily, is likely to remain a stubborn obstacle to the realization of this truly symbiotic Franco-German couple.

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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