Dec 13, 2022

Why France and Germany Need to Get Together With the UK Again

The Franco-German “engine” is spluttering, France’s neo-Gaullist tendencies are undermining what remains of Germany’s reform ambitions. Where they still seem to agree is on an imaginary Anglo-Saxon menace. Linking arms with London may actually solve Paris and Berlin’s problems.

French President Emmanuel Macron welcomes German Chancellor Olaf Scholz before a meeting at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France, October 26, 2022.
All rights reserved

Germany and France both have governments that came to power with a strong appetite to reform the European Union and to cut loose from old ways of thinking. Each is now trying to ask the difficult questions: How can Europeans provide for their own security, and how can they emancipate themselves from an unpredictable United States? But neither has a chance of succeeding when old habits are still attractive. One of which is the fata morgana of an “Anglo-Saxon menace.”

The French Ego

When President Emmanuel Macron presented France’s latest national security review in November, there was a sense of a new departure. This review challenges many old French habits of mind. Although it lays familiar emphasis on the EU’s “strategic autonomy,” it places a new focus on territorial defense in Europe and points to the threat from Russia and China whilst taking a warm tone on Euro-Atlantic cooperation. It was even a little iconoclastic in its readiness to keep the French ego under control.

One interesting reformist theme in Macron’s thinking is that Europe should develop its own brand of soft power. The president has rightly concluded that influence, culture, and ideological attractiveness are considerable weapons in today’s geopolitical environment and a way to fight back against US or Chinese dominance. Macron wants Europe to position itself as an attractive, independent pole in its own right and as a global sponsor of respect for national cultures.

This is where the control of the French ego comes in. Macron recognizes that if Europe is indeed going to flourish, he needs the French to stop viewing Europe as a mere platform for French civilization. Yet nothing pushes the French back into cultural chauvinism like the cultural trope of les Anglo-Saxons and the menace they pose to European unity and thus to France’s global standing.

And even Macron himself cannot help trying to get one over on the British. He has been making efforts to replace English with French as the working language of the EU institutions, expand French influence in anglophone Africa, and marginalize anglophile EU members in the Baltic and Nordic. His fans say the British have invited such a response by behaving badly in torpedoing a French defense deal with Australia (which led to the Australian-American-British AUKUS alliance) and of course by leaving the EU.

Provincial German Pro-Europeans

The reformist coalition government in Berlin led by Chancellor Olaf Scholz dearly wants to cooperate with the French on rethinking the EU’s security posture. But German reformers fear precisely these retrograde tendencies—France’s neo-imperial urges in Africa, its attempt to marginalize the EU’s eastern and Nordic states in favor of a western “core Europe,” and his use of the EU institutions as vehicles for French grandeur.

When the Scholz government took power this time last year, it signed up to Macron’s vision of “EU autonomy.” Political leaders in Berlin were reassured that Macron’s concept for the EU to operate more independently in the world was Gaullist in form, but not in flavor: Like Charles de Gaulle, Macron spoke of autonomy because he wanted to make foreign policy anew, but he did not share de Gaulle’s skepticism toward the US and United Kingdom or his drive for French greatness.

Reformers in Berlin now fear that they were duped—that Macron is putting old Gaullist ideology ahead of current realities. Relations between Berlin and Paris have subsequently bottomed out. And this breakdown in turn empowers Germany’s traditionalists—the elderly German politicians and diplomats who consider themselves instinctively pro-European and bash their government for allowing the “Franco-German motor” to splutter out.

This particular cohort of senior Germans is not, in fact, internationally-minded at all—it is deeply provincial. It is pro-European only in the sense that the EU offers an attractive outlet for a suppressed German nationalism, a vehicle for German power in the world. And if this elderly cohort appreciate the French, then that is often because of little more than a shared frustration with that perennial obstacle to their respective national interests—the UK.

These elderly Germans are, however, at least capable of expressing what they see as the national interest. And many reformers in Berlin have come to believe that defining and embracing the national interest is key to casting off their country’s foreign policy naivety. Consequently, a very provincial approach to Europe is taking root in reformist Berlin, one which believes Germany needs to grow up and assert its domestic economic interests and rules. This is a huge turn-off for reformers in Paris.

London Is Delighted

French and German traditionalists like to point to the “Anglo-Saxon menace” in a bid to forge unity. Yet the new government of British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is in fact rethinking British foreign and security policy in a way that echoes reformers in Paris and Berlin. Sunak has made skeptical noises about lining up behind the United States in its battle with China and seems to envision the UK actively hedging. And his foreign minister, James Cleverly, takes every opportunity to big up the alliance with the French and praises Germany’s Zeitenwende.

Britain’s own traditionalists have, however, been undermining these reformist tendencies. They cannot resist exploiting tensions between Paris and Berlin to re-establish Britain’s national prestige, trying to win Washington’s affection at the expense of Germany and France. Boris Johnson was the master at this. Whenever France and Germany struggled to move—whether it be on sanctions against Belarus or arms to Ukraine—Johnson moved quicker.

Traditionalists in Sunak’s Conservative Party are now trying to instrumentalize Franco-German tensions, this time to loosen the Brexit agreement under the watchful gaze of the US. When the UK voted to leave the EU in 2016, it plumped for a rigorous Brexit. France and Germany duly obliged. Standing shoulder to shoulder in the negotiations, Paris and Berlin displayed all the usual myopia that EU integration encourages. Their settlement mixed French protectionism and German rule-setting. But it now leaves the UK tied to an old status quo in Europe that was wiped away in February when Russia invaded Ukraine.

British traditionalists encourage Macron to see himself as a reformer who is being thwarted by Germany, a status quo power which has not yet grasped the fact that Europe is on fire. There are indeed signs that Macron has buyer’s remorse when it comes to the Brexit settlement, wanting to work with the UK on defense matters and frustrated that Germany won’t budge.

Such assertions, incidentally, tend to attract indignant phone calls from German diplomats exclaiming how tightly France and Germany remain bound on Brexit and hugging the poor old French even tighter to the rules.

Working Jointly on Europe’s Global Standing

The three governments—Paris, Berlin, and London—appear to be coming to a difficult realization. They all need some form of European autonomy. That means they need to work together on the defense of Europe. And that in turn means working jointly on the continent’s global standing.

We know that Germany and France are easily appalled by the US—they dislike the turbulence of its politics, protectionist moves like its Inflation Reduction Act, and above all the narrative that they need to line up with Washington in a global battle against autocracies. But the UK too appears to be cooling. US Presidents Barack Obama and now Joe Biden have been high-handed in their messaging to London. And yesterday, Cleverly backed out of Biden’s Manichean battle between democracies and autocracies, preferring instead to invest in long-term partnerships for change.

Still, does it even matter what these three western European governments think? We all know that political influence in Europe is moving to the east—toward hawkish Poland, the Atlanticist Baltic states, and NATO-hopeful Finland—and that they are skeptical about “European autonomy.”

Well, maybe. But these eastern EU countries are primarily interested in getting the US to defend Europe, and they would balk at going to war for the US in the Asia-Pacific. At present, they prefer picking fights with China in Europe itself, signaling loyalty to the US but within their comfort zone. They could be reassured by a European security order with a firm anchor in the UK and a mature and supportive approach to Euro-Atlantic cooperation.

So, the truth is that France and Germany need both each other and the United Kingdom. That means reformers in Paris and Berlin need to tame their Gaullist grandeur and the punitive rule-setting which postulates that it is impossible to work with the British if they have not signed up to EU terms on the Common Security and Defense Policy. If they do not, the Anglo-Saxon trope will become self-fulfilling: they will encourage the British to behave like the Anglo-Saxons of Gaullist lore and the piratical rule-breakers of German stereotyping.

Roderick Parkes is Research Director at the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP) and heads its Alfred von Oppenheim Center for European Policy Studies.

Read more by the author