25 Januar 2023

Beyond the “Franco-German Motor”? 60 years after the Elysée Treaty

By Manuel Müller
Deutsche und französische Flagge in einer Reihe anderer Flaggen.
Just two among many: An increasingly less Franco-German EU needs new ways to find compromises.

So, did you get well through the 60-year celebrations of the Elysée Treaty? Last Sunday was the anniversary of the Franco-German Friendship Treaty, and of course there was no shortage of solemn words at the corresponding ceremony.President Emmanuel Macron (RE/–) and Chancellor Olaf Scholz (SPD/PES) published a joint op-ed on “strengthening Europe” and set up a prominent working group of experts to make recommendations for institutional reforms in the EU.

But the enthusiasm didn’t quite take off this year. That’s partly because over the past few months a number of controversies have emerged between the two governments. The joint cabinet meeting that now took place on the occasion of the anniversary celebrations had originally been planned for last October but was cancelled at short notice then, something that had never happened between the two countries before.

Disenchantment of the partnership

Sure: In a way, it speaks for the Franco-German relationship that the two governments still work closely together in such situations. And even in earlier years, it was the rule rather than the exception that Germany and France initially took very different positions on important issues – and then made a decisive contribution to European decision-making precisely because they managed to pull together.

But perhaps this is just where the real disillusionment of the Franco-German partnership lies: unlike in the past, it no longer seems as if an agreement at the bilateral level could already be a breakthrough for the EU as a whole. The frictions between Germany and France only appear as one ier-European line of conflict among others.

The Franco-German alliance was never without problems

The extent to which the European framework of the Franco-German partnership has changed becomes clear in historical retrospect. Sure, the Elysée Treaty was never entirely without problems: when Konrad Adenauer and Charles de Gaulle signed it in 1963, it also served as a replacement for the intergovernmental “European Political Union” that the French government had proposed one year earlier – and that had failed due to the resistance of the Benelux countries in particular, who feared a weakening of the supranational institutions and an emergence of French dominance.

With the Elysée Treaty, Charles de Gaulle succeeded in institutionalizing his idea of cooperation based on intergovernmental consultations, at least on a bilateral level with Germany. This was rhetorically idealised as the overcoming of a “hereditary enmity”, which by 1963 was long past anyway. Certainly, cultural cooperation, for example in the form of town twinning or the Franco-German Youth Office, made an important contribution to bringing the people of both countries closer to each other. Politically, however, the Franco-German alliance never found the unreserved trust of the other member states.

“Compromis par procuration”

The fact that it was nevertheless able to develop into the much-invoked “motor” of European integration was mainly due to another phenomenon that is referred to as “compromis par procuration”. Apart from both being large member states, France and Germany were often on opposite sides in the important policy debates that have shaped European politics for many decades.

While France traditionally favoured an intergovernmental, executive-driven integration model geared towards the European Council, Germany was seen as the advocate of a parliamentary federal system with strong supranational institutions. While France opted for an independent European approach to foreign and security policy, Germany sought proximity to the USA and NATO. While France wanted to complement the single market with a monetary union early on, Germany held on to a strong D-Mark under the control of the independent Bundesbank. Economically, France relied on industrial policy, Germany on regulatory Ordnungspolitik. Regarding enlargement and neighbourhood policy, France was oriented towards the south, Germany towards the east.

Other members could identify with agreements reached by the two

But it was precisely these different starting positions that made Franco-German compromises a good basis for EU-wide agreements: Most other member states were close to either the French or the German position, and whenever the two largest countries were able to find a common line, the rest of the EU saw their most important interests taken into account, too.

For the EU as a whole, the Franco-German partnership therefore meant an important reduction in complexity. It is easier to find a basic compromise between two countries, which then only has to be adapted in the European Council to some special wishes of smaller member states, than to negotiate in a plenary session with twelve, fifteen or even twenty-seven countries.

The UK always remained an outsider

At the same time, this constellation gave Germany and France a special political influence on the EU. As a rule, it was they who jointly set the broad lines, and without them nothing moved. The general thrust of European integration therefore remained shaped by the Franco-German agenda for a very long time.

This was most keenly felt in the United Kingdom, where, after the accession in 1973, many politicians had expected to play at least an equal role alongside the Franco-German tandem. But in the following disputes, for example over the Common Agricultural Policy or monetary union, the UK always remained an outsider. It was able to put obstacles in the way of the Franco-German line, but never develop a real counter-model to it.

Loss of confidence during the euro crisis

But the compromis par procuration only works as long as the smaller member states actually see their interests represented by Germany or France. This model ran into its first serious difficulties during the euro crisis. Here, too, the tandem took opposing positions, representing different groups of countries: Germany, like the northern European countries, demanded austerity and national responsibility, while France, like the southern part of the EU, placed more emphasis on transnational solidarity.

But with France itself in financial trouble and the governments of Nicolas Sarkozy (UMP/EPP) and François Hollande (PS/PES) remaining politically weak, the resulting compromise between the two countries was overly “German”. The costs of the euro crisis were largely borne by the crisis countries themselves – which in southern Europe led to a loss of confidence in the EU in general and in the Franco-German leadership in particular.

Things went better during the corona pandemic, when Germany overcame itself on the issue of joint EU bonds and managed to take the sceptical northern European countries with it. The Franco-German proposal of May 2020, which two months later led to European agreement on a recovery fund, was a prime example of a compromis par procuration in this respect.

Alienation of the NCEE countries

The year 2022, however, brought an even greater challenge for Franco-German leadership: the deep alienation that has emerged between the tandem and the Northern, Central and Eastern European (NCEE) countries. When it comes to dealing with Russia, Germany and France are both seen to be in the “dovish” camp, which, while not allowing Russia to win the war in Ukraine, considers a negotiated settlement to be the best way to ensure a stable post-war order.

In NCEE, by contrast, many consider this approach to be dangerous since a negotiated solution would not be possible without some concessions from Ukraine – and would thus reward the Russian government for its war and provide an incentive for future aggressions. From the perspective of the Baltic States, for example, Germany and France are thus ignoring the essential security interests of their EU partners.

In search of alternative models to reduce complexity

Against this background, a Franco-German compromis par procuration is not something many people in Europe want to rely on right now. Distrust of the traditional “engine of integration” is stronger than it has ever been in the history of the EU. And even if solutions to the current strategic disputes may be found in the medium term, the basic problem is likely to remain: The EU has become so large and so heterogeneous that an agreement between the two largest member states in many cases is no longer sufficient to do justice also to the essential interests of the other countries.

But what other models are possible then to reduce the complexity of intergovernmental negotiations at EU level? In recent years, there have been various attempts to extend Franco-German cooperation to other partners who would be representative of other groups of member states – in particular the “Weimar Triangle” with Poland. However, due to the authoritarian development of the Polish government, this format has lost much of its importance since 2015.

Multipolar minilateralism?

At the same time, there has been an increase in the importance of the so-called minilateral forums: regional groups such as the Visegrád-4 or the Nordic-Baltic 6, whose members try to find a balance of interests among themselves in order to then appear more united in pan-EU negotiations.

This formation of regional groups fits in with a “multipolar” EU that is not only driven by the two largest member states, but in which different actors and groups of actors can be in the foreground depending on the topic. This can help to pre-structure Council negotiations. In the worst case, however, it can also lead to blockades, since regional groups can find it more difficult than individual governments to give up their positions in favour of a pan-European compromise.

This is exemplified by the deadlocked negotiations on burden-sharing in EU migration policy: Here it is mainly the Mediterranean states on the one side and the Visegrád countries on the other that are at odds – and talks on European asylum reform have made little to no progress for years.

Stronger supranational bodies

But there is another way to reduce the complexity of political negotiations in an ever larger and thus ever less Franco-German EU: namely by strengthening the joint supranational bodies.

Due to its institutional position, the Commission has the task to pursue a pan-European interest without leaving any part of the EU unconsidered anyway. And the European Parliament, with its pan-European parties and parliamentary groups, offers a model in which the political debate is not primarily structured by national interests but by ideological positions – and which can therefore bring into view completely different lines of compromise than intergovernmental negotiations.

The “motor” of the EU must be its own institutions

Germany and France driving European integration: This model that has shaped the EU for decades can in certain constellations still be effective today. But in the long run, an EU with 27 member states and 450 million inhabitants (and soon possibly even more) cannot depend on two national governments keeping an eye on the interests of everyone else in their bilateral search for compromise.

Therefore, the fact that Germany and France have now once again committed themselves to the goal of institutional reform may be the most important contribution that the tandem can make to a functioning future Europe. May the Franco-German friendship continue to blossom and prosper: The EU needs its own strong representative institutions to be the “motor of integration”.

Image: Flags: Joshua Fuller [Unsplash license], via Unsplash.

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