20 April 2018

The Franco-German axis – not beyond compare

The Franco-German engine has allowed for many important breakthroughs in the development of the EU, but in recent years it seems to have lost some of its traction. Can a new Elysée Treaty revive the partnership? In a series of guest articles, representatives from politics and science respond to the question of what role German-French cooperation can play in the future of the EU. Today: Christel Zunneberg. (To the start of the series.)

“‘MerRutte’, rather than ‘Merkozy’ or ‘Merkollande’ left their mark on affairs at the top of the Council’s agenda in recent years.”
The evolution of the EU created a ‘new bilateral reality’. With enlargement, qualified majority voting and divers forms of integration (such as Schengen and the Eurogroup), bi- and trilateral coordination have gained in importance. Bilateral relationships that are an integral part of and contribute to the structuring of a multilateral system are implicitly acknowledged to create political space.

EU scholars typically eulogize nexuses between heavyweights, most notably the Franco-German axis. It is due to their bilateral proximity on the one hand and their European orientation on the other that a joint pro-European agenda of these major actors is considered the linchpin of and ‘motor’ for European cooperation. Even more, with an historical responsibility for peace in Europe, it is considered being of existential importance to the EU. The partnership between Berlin and Paris is portrayed as beyond compare.

Comparing Franco-German and Dutch-German bilateralism

However, the true value of the Franco-German bilateral relationship for EU integration, and what is at stake with its future under “Mercron” can only be estimated in comparative perspective. What at first sight might seem an awkward comparison, namely with the Dutch-German duo, will prove most helpful in determining what exactly is the added value (or ‘multilateral effect’) of Franco-German bilateralism.

A series of interviews with senior Dutch and German diplomats (handling EU affairs both in the capitals and in Brussels) about their countries’ bilateral relationship in explicit comparison with the Franco-German one, clarifies that both duos represent two distinct axes-archetypes. Speculating about its future, this commentary explains for the fragility of the Franco-German model and puts the claim of the uniqueness in a new perspective.

Germany and the Netherlands: friends with strategic benefits

Germany and the Netherlands are strategic soulmates, if you will. For Berlin, The Hague is an attractive partner (I) for the “hohes Maß an grundsätzlicher politischer Übereinstimmung, was die Grundkoordinaten unserer Europapolitik angeht”, and (II) for three strategic size-related reasons.

Firstly, interviewees explain that the Netherlands adopting a clear position as “flank player” (as a small member state it does not bear responsibility for finding the compromise) and Germany trying to find middle ground oftentimes is an agreed division of labour. Secondly, in the face of general uneasiness about Germany taking the lead and German anxiety to be perceived as imposing its will, Berlin’s exceptional relationship with this smaller member state does justice to the European idea of cooperating on an equal footing. In praxis, “the Netherlands regularly puts forward German initiatives, which are easier to digest if proposed by a smaller member state”.

Thirdly, the Netherlands’ network capital amongst other smaller affluent member states renders Germany’s like-minded partner even more attractive. German interviewees contend that Dutch network centrality is instrumental in enlarging a Dutch-German alliance that often forms the coalition core. “Wir bilden gewisse Allianzen (…) und versuchen, andere noch dazuzugewinnen. Da ist Holland-Deutschland oft der Kern, von wo aus man dann arbeitet.” The Netherlands and Germany are, for that matter, friends with strategic benefits, rallying an ad-hoc like-minded coalition – ideally a winning majority or a blocking minority.

Germany and France: a marriage of convenience

Political orientation (I) and size (II) are also key to explaining the fundamentally different ‘multilateral effect’ of Franco-German bilateralism. The Franco-German axis is a ‘marriage of convenience’. When these two heavyweights bridge the distance between them, they forge a European compromise that is exemplary to and agreeable for all. German interviewees explain that “weil viele Länder sich an den Franzosen orientieren, hat man die überwiegende Mehrheit der anderen Partner an Bord.”

It should be noted that whilst the Dutch-German axis of asymmetric partners stimulates European cooperation because of its size, the Franco-German one does so despite of it – that is despite accusations by smaller member states that ‘the Big Six’ pre-cook formal EU meetings, form a directory and violate the principles of European cooperation.

Axes in praxis

Having established – through juxtaposing – the Franco-German axis as one archetype, further recurring comparisons with the basic profile and impact of Dutch-German bilateralism will help to comprehend the distinct praxis of the Franco-German axis. A key observation from the interview series is that the profile of Franco-German and Dutch-German bilateralism – the degree of cooperation and institutionalisation – differs depending firstly on the policy area and secondly on the level of EU cooperation.

The interviewees confirm that the Netherlands and Germany are “politisch sehr wesensnah”, particularly as regards deepening the Economic and Monetary Union, the European budget and migration. Differing about institutional questions, Dutch-German bilateralism stimulates economic (rather than political) integration. On the other hand, the Franco-German axis traditionally works so as to stimulate European political integration, noting that their economic dissimilarities are oftentimes irreconcilable.

Whilst member states logically represent the same positions at all actor levels, the impact of bilateralism in fields of like-mindedness is inextricably linked to the process direction of decision-making: bottom-up (at the working level) or top-down (in and around the European Council). This assessment holds true both for Franco-German and for Dutch-German bilateralism.

No axes at play at the working level

In “Coreper” consultations – the Committee of Permanent Representatives, made up of each country’s (deputy) head of mission in Brussels – Germany and the Netherlands frequently take common positions, provide mutual support and co-organize blocking minorities. “Wenn man es mal zählen würde, vielleicht noch mal ein Tick häufiger als mit den Franzosen,” interviewees from the Dutch and the German Permanent Representation to the EU contemplate.

Nevertheless, there are no axes at play in Coreper, neither a Dutch-German, nor a Franco-German: coalitions are issue-dependent and solid alignment patterns absent. Interviewees provide two reasons for the fluidity in Coreper decision-making: the nature of the dossiers and Brussels’ working-level machinery for dealing with them. Firstly, joint leadership on questions about the Finalité of EU does not necessarily translate into cooperation on technical matters. Secondly, under time pressure the bilateral level is caught between compulsory expeditious consultation with national parliaments about Commission proposals and subsequent multilateral coordination within the Committee of Permanent Representatives’ preparatory bodies. There is no parallel negotiation trajectory to discuss single policy proposals and drafts for acts due to time and (in small-scale administrations) capacity constraints.

What obstructs bilateral cooperation with Germany in Coreper

Dutch interviewees point at two country-specific factors that obstruct bilateral cooperation with Germany in Coreper, one ideological and one constitutional. For one thing, its consensual mind-set, which originates in its historical responsibility for and stake in European integration, renders Germany hesitant to undertake initiatives with individual member states; it rather approaches the Commission.

For another, Germany’s federal system constitutes a structural obstacle in coordinating with the country up to an advanced phase of the negotiation process. Article 23 of the German constitution requires the Federal Government to coordinate the vast bulk of EU affairs closely with the sixteen bundesländer. Its position in Coreper consequently remains provisional, forcing it to abstain (the notorious ‘German vote’), until it ultimately reaches a fixed standpoint. The federal system renders Germany an incapable and inflexible partner at the working level – both for the Netherlands and for France.

Task-specific consultations unite German and Dutch bureaucracies

Rather than a Dutch-German or Franco-German axis, there are multiple driving and steering forces that affect ad-hoc coalition building at the working level: the European Commission that initiates proposals, the Council secretariat and the Presidency. Policy evaluators confirm that a cross section of mundane dossiers does not display a Franco-German axis. Germany and France are oftentimes ‘on board’ due to the Presidency’s efforts, rather than as a result of bilateral coordination between them.

Bilateral cooperation does exist at the bureaucratic level, yet only between like-minded countries. Decoupled from concrete issues in Coreper, inter-ministerial task-specific consultations typically do prevail. Germany and the Netherlands jointly partake in various continuous dialogues between like-minded countries, e.g. on trade, agrarian and development policy. The interviewees stress the importance of these task-specific consultations: in the absence of an informal trajectory activated to deal with Coreper issues, coordination amongst ‘natural allies’ is valuable in creating a wider support base a propos. Not being soulmates, France and Germany lack such institutionalised working-level contacts. Indeed, France organizes itself with its own like-minded EU member states.

Axes at play in high-level contacts

A different picture emerges at the ministerial and head-of-government/state level, where both duos seek to steer the EU’s general political course and priorities. Interviewees explain that Dutch-German and Franco-German bilateralism stimulate European cooperation and integration top-down rather than bottom-up. This is accounted for by the different nature of the dossiers (the matters under discussion are directional more than technical), by smooth high-level decision-making in Germany (if in the portfolio of the Bundeskanzlerin, matters are prepared by the Bundeskanzleramt and do not pass through the cumbersome bureaucracy), and by the infrastructure of Council meetings.

There typically is a parallel trajectory to coordinate grand strategies prior to and in the margins of Council meetings – where high-level contacts both between Berlin and The Hague and between Berlin and Paris are very frequent. In comparison, however, the high-level contact between Bundeskanzlerin Merkel and Minister-President Rutte and their Sherpas (the personal representative of the head of state or government) is extraordinarily familiar. Whereas the Dutch-German bilateral proximity renders it redundant to institutionalize high-level coordination (meetings between the Bundeskanzlerin’s EU advisor and the Benelux ambassadors being atypical in that regard), the marriage of convenience between the Elysée and the Bundeskanzleramt is more formalized and institutionalized – a way of doing to which the French attach great value.

‘MerRutte’ rather than ‘Merkollande’ left their mark in recent years

A record of the last decade proves that the Franco-German ‘consensus-building’ axis-archetype is less robust than the Dutch-German ‘coalition-building’ model, which – based on like-mindedness – allows for institutionalized working-level contact and extraordinarily familiar high-level contact. Interviewees point out how ‘MerRutte’, rather than ‘Merkozy’/‘Merkollande’ left their mark on affairs that were at the top of the Council’s agenda in recent years.

Since the Financial and Eurocrisis (2008) the alliance with The Hague counter- and outweighed the one with Paris in economic and monetary matters. In the handling of the Greek government-debt crisis (2010), the Dutch-German duo counterbalanced the Commission, advocating the IMF’s involvement. The EU-Turkey deal (March 2016) was a Dutch-German initiative concluded to mend the migration crisis. It constitutes an example of joint leadership par-excellence: the manner in which Bundeskanzlerin Merkel and minister-president Rutte took the lead in the European Council was “what you would expect from the Franco-German cooperation.”

Even if conditional (namely upon the strained relationship between Berlin and Paris under President Hollande), Dutch-German bilateralism bears continual leadership potential. The Franco-German engine, in contrast, needs to be switched on or is indeed switched off, with no comparable safety net on the working level. Hence the justified agitation about the future of ‘Mercron’: With the Franco-German model, past performance (luckily) is no guarantee for the future.

The Franco-German axis – not beyond compare

To understand the Franco-German axis as one archetype is to shed new light on the claim that it is beyond compare. It opens up two avenues for comparison. For one thing, other ‘marriages of convenience’ might, admittedly to a lesser but certain extent, sort the same ‘multilateral effect’ of consensus-building if they manage to sort out their differences. Berlin-Paris might be unique in the dimensions of its impact, but not in the logic behind it. For another, it is incomparable in its ‘multilateral effect’ with the Dutch-German archetype, which is of a distinct value for deepening EU integration building coalitions between like-minded member states.

This commentary’s seemingly awkward comparison with the Dutch-German duo thus brings good and bad news. The bad: the Franco-German axis-archetype is inherently fragile. The good: the future of the EU does not depend on the consensus-building archetype – as the Dutch-German coalition-building model has proven to steer the EU through its severest contemporary crises.

Christel Zunneberg is External Policy Fellow in the Rethink: Europe team of the European Council on Foreign Relations (Berlin).

Images: By Minister-president Rutte [CC BY 2.0], via Flickr; Christel Zunneberg (all rights reserved).

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