The estrangement of French and German policymakers had already set in during the 1990s, even though these were glorious years for European integration. France never engaged enthusiastically in the enlargement process, while the creation of the euro led to serious Franco-German economic policy tensions from 1993 right up to 1999. On defence, French decisions such as abandoning military conscription in 1996 but pressing ahead on nuclear testing did little to improve the relationship. Nor was the run-up to the Nice treaty in 2000 proof of a happy Franco-German couple, while the European Convention in the following years also failed to yield any worthwhile Franco-German initiatives. And the last five years of Jacques Chirac’s time in office produced more in terms of deadlock than anything else, finally being crowned in May 2005 by the spectacular French ”No” vote in the referendum on the EU’s draft constitutional treaty.
The authoritarian behaviour of France and Germany – for example, criticising tax regimes in eastern Europe while themselves not complying with the Stability Pact – and their arrogant claim that they alone understood “political Europe” and so would sew up deals bi-laterally, like that on agriculture in October 2002, appalled other EU countries, and especially the more recent members. And has hardly helped the process of European integration.
The Franco-German engine cannot function as before, and there is no point in wishing it could. Yet the European Union remains dependent on the driving force provided by the two countries. They may have lost authority, but without them nothing much happens in the EU. They comprise the critical mass essential for progress within the Union. What then can be done to generate a new sense of leadership around the Franco-German axis?
The election of a new French President might be thought a promising start to a new era of cooperation. But Nicolas Sarkozy’s apparent view that the European Central Bank should be subject to some degree of political engineering upset Germany. The time for discussion about the ECB’s independence was over, said Berlin. A visit Sarkozy made to Moscow also irritated Germany, which believes it has a close relationship with Russia, and felt that it was being by-passed.
Last December, the European Council decided to establish what was called an independent Reflection Group to consider the future of the European Union. It was seen as a French invention partly designed to torpedo Turkey’s full membership of the EU. It was generally received with little enthusiasm, and Germany in particular voiced scepticism about its purpose.
Germany also clashed with France over Sarkozy’s proposal for a “Union for the Mediterranean”. It considers, along with other EU countries, that the 1995 Barcelona Process covering the Euro-Mediterranean relationship, still has some life in it. Sarkozy and Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel met in March to sort things out, and reached agreement on the development of Euro-Mediterranean relations. Essentially, now all EU-countries are invited to the Mediterranean summit on July 13, which was the hardest disputed question. The dossier had the potential to split the EU. Temporarily, tensions grew so big that France announced the postponement of the “Blaesheim talks”, a regular exchange of views by French and German leaders on European issues, that was started in 2001 in the Alsatian town of Blaesheim and is now held in various locations. This looked like a threat to break down this line of communication. In the event, though, that has not happened, and the two countries’ institutional mechanisms have held. Franco-German disputes often seem fierce but do not last long, and can even serve to make people realise how important the relationship is.
"The EU is not an organisation designed to promote French gloire"
Sarkozy’s two-day state visit to London in March, carefully staged and enthusiastically celebrated, was in marked contrast to the morose atmosphere of Franco-German relations. Nicolas Sarkozy discussed with Prime Minister Gordon Brown a number of topics that could easily make Germany feel left behind. Prominence was given to a deal to build a new generation of nuclear power stations in Britain, using France’s considerable nuclear expertise.
Germany, by contrast, is still committed to a withdrawal from nuclear energy, a policy that Angela Merkel had placed at the top of her agenda during Germany’s EU presidency in 2007. For Sarkozy, nuclear energy is among the “renewables”, so the issue is yet another pomme de discorde, and unlikely to re-build confidence between France and Germany. Sarkozy’s UK visit also produced a Franco-British commitment to further promote European Security and Defence Policy (ESDP), and in France’s case to send more troops to Afghanistan. But Germany too, needs to be engaged over ESDP and Afghanistan, and should not be by-passed. If the Sarkozy presidency has any relevance to Franco-German relations, it may be to reinforce the view that the EU needs new leadership, and that it must still be based on the founding partners.
It is good that Franco-British cooperation should be closer, pulling the UK once more towards Europe. And German-British relations are also improving. European responsibilities are being distributed onto more shoulders, and that too is good: Iran, climate change and ESDP are all examples of shared decision-making. The Franco-German engine is still necessary, but is showing wear and tear. The larger geo-strategic questions, such as the EU’s future relations with Russia and its links to NATO, require the attention of a bigger leadership team, especially including those with experience of Eastern Europe. Poland has that experience and leadership potential, even if Germany will remain the glue between East and West.
Everybody, and especially Germany, has an interest in a successful French EU presidency, starting in July. France will need Germany’s support if it is to make useful progress during its six-month stint. Sarkozy has said he wants to promote measures to deal with climate change; to review European migration policy and finally to re-energize ESDP, in line with France’s decision to return to NATO. The Lisbon treaty will very probably start being implemented during the French presidency, with nominations for future EU leadership, including a permanent president, along with steps to shape the future European External Action Service, essentially an EU foreign ministry. It is an ambitious programme, calling for hard work without any guarantee of reward. The EU is not an organisation designed to promote French gloire.
Even François Mitterrand, it is perhaps forgotten, needed two years to arrive at this conclusion and to re-acknowledge the importance of Franco-German cooperation. He changed his financial policy in 1983 in order to stay in the European Monetary System. In 1984 he master-minded the famous Fontainebleau summit, fixing the EU budget problem, and clearing the way for the European Single Act that formally established a single European market and thus gave new impetus to the continent. Maybe Sarkozy will surprise us yet.
France and Germany, along with the other EU states, need to remember that the Lisbon treaty is, in effect, the newly restored European constitution that had been shaped to lead the Union into the 21st century. For it to work, the leadership needs to become bigger so that it can function again. France especially must show that it truly cares for Europe and its role in the world, and that the EU is much more than a French tool. Working with Germany, Sarkozy’s France has to build a new team for the EU.