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Pairing up to Repair Europe: France and Germany

By Claire Demesmay

Whether Angela Merkel or Martin Schulz becomes the next chancellor of Germany, their relationship with Macron and France will be crucial for the future of the EU. But is this somewhat dysfunctional couple, whose relationship has been marked by tension and rivalry as well as constructive cooperation, fit to lead such a large family? Can the historical ‘engine of Europe’ still propel European integration forwards?   

As the Head of Programme for Franco-German Relations at the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP) in Berlin, how would you say French elections and their topics are perceived in Germany, and vice versa?

Clare Demesmay: Never before has a French election been as closely followed in Germany. Firstly, because the campaign has revealed a rare political polarisation. Its outcome has a direct, long-term impact on European partners: Marine le Pen in power would have jeopardised the whole European project, and with it the decades-old narrative around Germany being well-integrated into the European Union. On the other hand, Emmanuel Macron’s discourse is in line with the European image of German political culture. Moreover, France is seen in Germany as central to the stability of the monetary union. There is a consensus that sustainable solutions to the internal problems of the Eurozone will not be possible without reforms in France.

In Germany I sense a feeling of urgency in the face of a weakened European Union: internally, because of Brexit, but especially because of a surge in self-interest and centrifugal forces; externally, with a range of enormous challenges: pressure from migration, to which Europeans still haven’t provided a lasting response, the continuing threats from terrorism and conflict (Syria, Ukraine), and a translatlantic relationship which has taken a battering since the election of Donald Trump.  In Berlin it is recognised that Germany cannot tackle these problems alone, and urgently needs partners.  Yet there are few possible candidates, and leadership bears a heavy cost. From this point of view, France holds a strong hand.

On the French side, the German election this autumn will also be followed very closely, even if the stakes are lower.  A Euro-sceptic party like Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) could certainly enter the Bundestag, but it’s pretty certain that the outcome will be a country governed by a pro-European coalition.  It will be interesting to see if the French election will lead to European issues being debated more than usual during the German campaign. For the moment, the candidates are being cautious.  Since May 2017, we know that a pro-European position would not necessarily lead to electoral failure, even in a country where a large proportion of the people are critical of the EU. I hope that German parties will also show some boldness by speaking more about Europe than in previous campaigns, and providing constructive proposals for the future.

What are the different scenarios for the Franco-German couple after the German federal elections?

First, the good news: with the election of Emmanuel Macron, the conditions are in place for a more dynamic Franco-German cooperation than in the past. There is no doubt that he wants to work closely with Berlin – we see that in the make-up of the French government, in which experts on, and friends of, Germany are well represented. Right from the start, Macron has received encouragement from Germany which crosses the political divide. Added to which, he is insisting on internal reforms, such as in the jobs market, to give France back its credibility on the European stage – a discourse that resonates with the current narratives in Berlin. Both countries are also now acutely aware of their shared responsibility for tackling the problems facing the EU.

However, the partnership will have to demonstrate its effectiveness on the ground, and have plenty of staying power, for there is no shortage of problems. In many areas – and this is the less good news – the interests, and approaches, of the two countries diverge, which means painful compromises will be necessary. How ready are Paris and Berlin for this? From the economic and social points of view, it’s unemployment and weak purchasing power which is worrying the French the most, whereas in Germany businesses have a workforce problem. Beyond that, France needs prospects, with a quick improvement of the jobs market and of training programmes but the government cannot start an investment programme like Gerhard Schröder’s Agenda 2010 initiative, because it has committed to budgetary orthodoxy. Hence Macron’s plan for a Eurozone budget. In Germany though, it is budgetary stability which reassures people. Tax reductions are more popular than investment, especially if it happens in neighbouring countries. In these circumstances, a qualitative leap in integration will be difficult. Hostile reactions to Macron’s criticisms of German trade surpluses reveal the extent of this divide. However, for progress to happen, it won’t be enough for Berlin to support the labour market reforms in France!

Apart from differences in approach, and self-interest, Paris and Berlin will face the challenge of bringing together other partners. On the one hand, because they cannot solve EU problems alone, on the other because an inward-looking Franco-German couple can create resentment. I think that flexible collaborations between different countries will be essential, according to political allegiance and the issues to be addressed. We cannot speak of European migration and asylum policy without working with Italy, Sweden, Greece, or a representative from the Visegrad Group – in other words, Member States with opposing stances. The same reasoning applies for the economy, energy, or defence. Above and beyond this, it is clearly in the interests of France and Germany to get involved in creating European structures, in order to avoid being in a permanent state of demand, and to avoid deadlocks being reinforced by a lack of a common framework. The refugee crisis has shown that German leadership is all the more contested because Berlin has no legal framework to refer to. The Visegrad Group has been prompted to create intergovernmental alliances to oppose Berlin’s request to accept refugees. With clear European rules, guaranteed by European institutions, alliances of certain Member States against others would lose legitimacy. But for this to happen, Paris and Berlin will also have to play the supranational game.

What can one expect on issues such as defence, social Europe, climate change and energy, and the Eurozone from the future Merkel or Schulz tandem with Macron?

Whether Angela Merkel or Martin Schulz is chancellor will not fundamentally change the quality of Franco-German cooperation.  On the one hand, the Christian Democrats (CDU) and the Social Democrats (SPD) have fairly close positions on Europe; on the other hand, the choice of coalition partner will also play a part, as the chancellor does not decide alone.  So I am expecting mostly different emphases.

Economic and social cooperation would be easiest with a Social-democrat chancellor.  Like Emmanuel Macron, Martin Schulz is in favour of European investment projects and the creation of a Eurozone budget. The CDU/CSU is, in contrast, very reticent, and, Finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble, who is both the inspiration for, and the guardian of “schwarze Null” [a fully balanced or even ‘in the black’ budget] is against it. Angela Merkel is apparently prepared to consider it, but from this to realising the idea is quite a leap. In particular, the project, at least in its most ambitious form, would be blocked if the Finance Ministry were again occupied by a strict adherent to budgetary orthodoxy. In general the greatest convergence on social issues is between Macron and Schulz, with, for instance, the SPD’s advocating of minimum wages to bring social standards closer together. But I doubt that this will have a knock-on effect on their European partners.

Nonetheless, on matters of security and defence, Franco-German cooperation would be most dynamic under Chancellor Merkel. Over the past few years, Paris and Berlin have agreed on a series of proposals which Macron has taken on, amongst them the creation of a European HQ for military operations, and a European investment fund for military equipment. Under Chancellor Merkel discussions would continue in this direction. Martin Schultz is also in favour of these plans, but unlike Angela Merkel, is against a substantial increase in defence spending such as that advocated by Donald Trump, whilst Macron and Merkel are both committed to a defence budget of 2% of public spending. That being the case, whatever the result of the September election, we can expect some grinding of teeth in Berlin when France requests greater military involvement.

Why has the Franco-German couple become increasingly effective over the years at the administrative and bureaucratic level but had such a lack of visibility and popularity at the political level?

Even if it hasn’t always been very visible over the past few years, the Franco-German partnership hasn’t come to a halt. The best example is doubtless the management of the conflict with Russia around the issue of Ukraine, where Paris and Berlin have appeared united. This said, for a while the cooperation between the two countries has resulted in few projects that were really ambitious, or capable of engaging European partners. This is largely due to important differences in opinion, and interests, at the very heart of the EU, on issues such as migration or budgetary orthodoxy. But beyond this, the Franco-German partnership also has its own difficulties. For several years France has had to confront internal problems, such as terrorism, mass unemployment, or the influence of nationalist movements on national life, which have limited its room for manoeuvre within Europe. What is more, this bilateral relationship is structurally imbalanced, with Germany in the dominant position. This asymmetry is detrimental to the Franco-German machinery, which nonetheless contains the right cogs in the right administrative places to be able to come up with compromises.

The fact that the new government in Paris sounds so proactive about promoting a dynamic Europe could be game-changing, even if the marked imbalance between the two countries  will take time to regulate. But Emmanuel Macron will only attain his goals if his team succeeds in improving the country’s economic and social situation, and convincing the French tempted to retreat into nationalism that the EU is more of a solution than a problem. This will be a complex task, for which the new Executive has little time. And it has the parallel challenge of managing Germany’s very high expectations, and attendant enthusiasm and impatience towards Paris. Planning and time management will be of the essence.

The European and international context lends itself to a new Franco-German dynamic. Since the election of Donald Trump in the USA, and conflicts at European borders, Germany is increasingly aware that Europeans must take charge of their own destiny. This idea resonates with the narrative, traditionally heard in France, of a Europe capable of providing security and protecting its citizens. And, with the new internal rebalancing that Brexit will bring about, Germany is, more than ever, in a leadership role, and wants to share this with solid partners.

In these conditions, the security and defence policy lends itself best to a revival of Franco-German – and wider European – cooperation. This issue ticks all the boxes, or almost all: threats are heightened, traditional defence structures have been reassessed since Trump’s election, Europeans have similar interests (despite their differences), and citizens have concrete expectations on these matters, all of which adds legitimacy to any measures taken. These policy areas also have the advantage of not further deepening the divide between two categories of Member States, as happens with the extension of Monetary Union.

You, along with other thinkers wrote in Le Monde that it was time to abandon the idea of an homogeneous European integration. You are therefore calling for a multi-speed Europe?

In our Franco-German reflexion group, our starting point was a two-fold observation. On the one hand, Europeans face serious challenges, whether terrorist attacks, armed conflict at our borders, or energy and climate change; these challenges force us to act, and nation states cannot address them alone.  On the other hand, a narrow nationalism has intensified at the very heart of the EU, Poland being an example, which leads to the blocking of various avenues which could provide common solutions. This contradiction must be countered, and soon, and for this we have to abandon the ideal of an ever-closer political union for all Member States. We feel that there is a need for pragmatism, to allow those European states who wish to act in common to do so.

Given the experience of France and Germany in producing European compromises, but also their feelings of responsibility for Europe, I think that these two countries have a central role to play. Nonetheless, the way forward is not without risk, and there are two pitfalls that must be avoided. The first is the exacerbation of existing centrifugal forces, accelerating the division of the EU; this is why, along with the issues for which only differentiated integration is possible, it seems to me indispensable to work on projects of common interest. Security policy lends itself to this, as does the protection of the EU’s exterior borders, and less political areas, such as adapting our economies to the digital revolution. This can also enable us, in the longer term, to win back Member States tempted to retreat into nationalism.

The second pitfall is the heightening of intra-European tensions, by excluding states which are attached to common action but side-lined by what could be seen as Franco-German dominance. This would be counterproductive; Paris and Berlin absolutely must work with all those who wish, including the smallest countries. Personally, I am arguing for flexible constellations, in line with subjects and interests and around a Franco-German core, which would underpin European cooperation with a certain stability and durability. It seems to me neither necessary nor relevant to institutionalise this kind of cooperation, which would fix it too rigidly, and create new borders between the ‘ins’ and the ‘outs’. Of course, it is difficult to escape a fixed framework in the case of the Eurozone, as it is already an established union at the heart of the union, but it is all the more important to guarantee other cooperation initiatives as much flexibility as possible.

 

Pairing up to Repair Europe: France and Germany