European Affairs

At 40, the Franco-German Couple Shows New Signs of Life     Print Email

The intimate relationship between France and Germany, which has driven European integra-tion for much of the past half cen-tury, has been pronounced dead many times over the years. Those obituaries have proved premature. Once again, with the European Union about to expand to 25 or more members, and a recent history of political conflict between Paris and Berlin, the relationship faces unprecedented challenges. But a sudden string of important agree-ments may be breathing new life into the old partnership.

With the official 40th anni-versary of the relationship due to be celebrated early in 2003, both par-ties are keen to find ways of restat-ing its validity. Many, however, believe that the latest signs of dynamism in the relationship will have to mark the beginning of a fundamental new deal if France and Germany are to play their tradi-tional role as the motor of European unification in the years ahead.

Certainly, the two countries spent the entire 1990s drifting apart. After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, France had a hard time redefining its relationship with an enlarged, unified Germany, and Paris was not ready to embrace the vision of an integrated, enlarged Europe.

Instead, France set in motion plans for a European confederation; from the Treaty of Maastricht in 1992 to the Treaty of Amsterdam in 1997, France swept aside German ideas of European political union. In the field of common security and defense policy, France seriously called into question the role of NATO and promoted independent European initiatives. Last but not least, the 1990s were marked by serious Franco-German quarrels about the implementation of Economic and Monetary Union and the European Union's Stability and Growth Pact.

In short, during the 1990s, France and Germany were divided in all the core policy fields of the European Union - the federal char-acter of the European constitution, the stance of monetary policy, the costs of enlargement, reform of the common agricultural policy and European security and defense policy.

The decade of painful mis-understandings and disputes culmi-nated in an open fight between the two countries at an EU summit meeting in Berlin in 1999 over the financial structure of the European Union after it admits new members. One year later, during the negotia-tion of the Treaty of Nice, the two clashed again, this time over reform of the EU institutions to cope with enlargement. The already faltering engine seemed to have definitively broken down.

Then, to everybody's sur-prise, at a summit meeting in Brus-sels in October 2002, France and Germany came to an agreement covering some of the most impor-tant budgetary questions relating to enlargement. Was this only a tem-porary fix, a case of agile crisis management to avoid the meltdown of the EU enlargement process? Or was it a sign that the Franco-German couple was slowly returning to its good old habits of faithful and lasting cooperation?

By itself, the Brussels agreement demonstrated only that the two countries are once again on speaking terms. That was not a negligible accomplishment. It could not have happened without the col-lapse of France's so-called cohabitation government after presidential and parliamentary elections last year. Cohabitation, which in-volved the sharing of government leadership between a conservative, neo-Gaullist president and a socialist prime minister, had driven the country into profound conceptual deadlock on European policy.

With the re-election of President Jacques Chirac in June and the re-election of Chancellor Gerhard Schr̦der in Germany a few months later, both leaders now have relatively free hands. For the next four years they can develop com-mon projects in European policy from relatively secure positions - even if Mr. Schr̦der's domestic popularity plunged following the election.

But the fundamental question remains: do France and Germany still share a common vision of the enlarged Europe? There are still clouds on the horizon because, despite their recent agreements, France has not yet fully embraced two crucial, interrelated concepts that are especially dear to Germany: a federal Europe and a fully politically integrated enlarged European Union.

Three other factors are con-tributing to continuing questions about Franco-German cooperation:

First, a systemic change has occurred in the Franco-German relationship. Until the end of the Cold War, the agreement between France and Germany was both a necessary and a sufficient condition for progress in European integration. In the 1980s, all the couple's objectives, from the Single Market to Economic and Monetary Union, were ultimately successfully achieved.

Since then, however, while Franco-German agreement remains necessary, it is no longer a sufficient condition for progress. Together, the two countries still represent the critical mass needed to make things happen, as the Brussels agreement recently showed, if only because their capacity to create deadlock is immense. But with the European Union getting larger and its problems more complex, additional partners are becoming necessary, above all Britain.

Second, a change of pattern, first observed in the 1990s, has ap-parently become a permanent part of the European landscape. Toward the end of the decade, France and Germany began to flirt competi-tively with London, largely in order to try to gain leverage in their rela-tions with each other.

In 1998, Mr. Schr̦der signed an economic paper on the so-called Third Way with British Prime Minister Tony Blair and gave French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin the cold shoulder on economic policy. In return, later that year, France took Britain as its partner in a major leap forward in the European Security and Defense Policy (ESDP). Each of these initiatives was carefully and narrowly focused, but together they were enough to throw the old partnership further off balance.

Finally, with France and Germany divided, Britain was able to set the agenda for the debate about the future of Europe, and did so quite successfully. Mr. Blair largely hijacked the debate on in-stitutional reform by proposing, to-gether with Spanish Prime Minister Jose-Maria Aznar, an elected Presi-dent of the European Council to represent the European Union with a single face and voice.

From the moment he did so, the stereotypical Franco-German discussion about the so-called "leftovers" from the Amsterdam Treaty (voting procedures in the Council of Ministers and a reduction of the number of Commissioners) was finished. The British proposal set the tone, and the question of whether the European Council should have an elected president quickly became one of the most important issues in the convention that is currently drafting a future European constitution. Then, a few weeks after the Franco-German agreement in Brussels, everything changed.

The two governments made big efforts to demonstrate that they were working on joint positions on EU issues, and those efforts proved surprisingly fruitful. In December, Paris and Berlin came up with three joint declarations - on the European Security and Defense Policy, on justice and home affairs, and on European economic governance.

As if that were not enough, a few days before the 40th anniversary of the Elysee Treaty, the official foundation stone of the Franco-German partnership, the two countries reached a far-reaching agreement on the European Union's future institutional framework.

As in the past, France and Germany succeeded in achieving a compromise between their opposing positions. Germany finally accepted the idea of electing a president of the European Council, and France, in exchange, paved the way for the President of the Commission to be elected by the European Parliament.

The initiative is far-reaching, in that is intended to settle the long-running dispute over whether the Union should be more "federal" or more "inter-governmental." In the end, the proposal is likely to strengthen both the Commission and the Council, maintaining the traditional equilibrium between the EU institutions. The Commission will acquire greater legitimacy; the Council will become more efficient. The proposal thus meets two of the Convention's widely accepted objectives.

One will have to wait and see, however, how these plans for a dual EU presidency will develop. There are three possible stumbling blocks:

Firstly, the Union will have to decide whether the future Presi-dent of the European Council should be a strong leader, as pro-vided for in the French constitution, or a president with a more repre-sentational role, as in Germany.

France would be happy to turn the European Council into a sort of directoire of the larger countries that could project EU power on the world stage, without being forced into compromising French sovereignty through supra-national structures.

Secondly, much will depend on the characters of the people that occupy the two positions. If a weak leader were to become President of the Council, the Commission could develop into the Union's real executive, and vice versa.

Thirdly, while it is fine to approve dual presidencies, that alone does not meet the Union's real institutional challenges: greater use of qualified majority voting, a reduction in the number of Commissioners and the re-weighting of votes in the Council of Ministers. Nothing, in fact, has yet been said about what should happen in the Council of Ministers, which is attended by Ministers of the member governments, as opposed to the European Council, which is composed of heads of state and government.

The latest Franco-German proposal certainly represents a ma-jor step forward for the whole Con-vention. But it does not mean that the Convention's task has now been completed. The proposal is essen-tially a basis for further work. There are plenty of outstanding problems that still need answers.

France and Germany are finding it difficult to agree on the distribution of competencies within the European Union. Germany wants the convention to stipulate precisely which policy areas will be under EU authority and which will remain under national control. This idea, driven mainly by the German LÌÛnder (States), has not been understood in a France that has no domestic federal tradition.

And while France is strongly insisting on the creation of a "third chamber" to represent members of national Parliaments in the EU political system, Germany does not want to make the system even more opaque by creating a new institution. In short, France and Germany do not agree on the neces-sary trade-off between the effi-ciency of the EU system and grass roots political participation.

What is more, Franco-German ambitions to push forward cooperation in security and defense policy are not very convincing. In July 2002, at the 79th bilateral summit meeting between the two countries in Schwerin, both agreed on a rapid strengthening of the ESDP. A common declaration set forth ambitious plans to merge civilian and military actions within the policy's framework.

Meanwhile, both countries have even suggested turning the European Security and Defense Policy into a European Security and Defense Union. The proposal is of far-reaching symbolic importance, and the idea of opening ESDP to the possibility of "enhanced cooperation" is certainly a good one. That would enable some EU countries to go ahead with limited military actions within the EU framework, without the other countries being able to block such actions. But without a credible effort to im-prove military capabilities and in-crease defense spending, this common Franco-German proposal may remain purely rhetorical.

Doubts persist since France and Germany have not yet been able to work out most of the details of a European defense agency, in-cluding common military programs such as the Airbus A400M transport aircraft. Equally, on Iraq, France has placed itself squarely among the global players and, apart from some soothing rhetoric, has let Berlin understand that Germany exercises global influence and power on an entirely different, and lower, level.

Last but not least, EU en-largement and its financing go to the heart of further disputes that are soon likely to erupt between France and Germany, and the recent Brus-sels agreement - essentially a face-saving measure - does not change much. Now that it has been decided to phase the new member countries into the Common Agricultural Pol-icy (CAP), it is inevitable that the cost will at some point explode. Even though a spending ceiling has been agreed, no structural reforms have been undertaken so far. The CAP system will be maintained in principle until 2013.

In addition, Mr. Chirac cleverly linked any changes in the CAP to the abandonment of the British budgetary rebate. This clearly means that the Franco-German engine will not be sufficient to work out the next budgetary framework for the period between 2006 and 2013. If Britain declares its hard-won rebate to be non-negotiable, and France does not want to touch the CAP, Germany will have to conduct a lonely fight from its uncomfortable position as the largest net budgetary contributor.

France, which is on paper the second net contributor after Germany, is strongly advantaged by the returns it receives in the agri-cultural sector. In fact, while the GDP per head of both countries is roughly equal, Germany makes a net payment of roughly ‰âÂ112 per capita into the budget, whereas the French net contribution represents only some ‰âÂ20 per capita. This fi-nancial imbalance is sure to cause a major clash in the next three years.

In addition, it is not clear how to reduce the budgetary share of CAP spending, which currently accounts for roughly half the total. There will have to be some kind of agreement between France and Germany if money is to be freed for new tasks: common border protec-tion, a strengthened ESDP, im-proved infrastructure and high-tech programs, to name only a few.

All these strains are exacer-bated by the fact that both France and Germany lack an overall geostrategic concept for the enlarged European Union. The thorniest issues include the following: How can the Union develop a geopolitical vision with some kind of power projection now that Turkey will probably become a member at some point in the future? What should be the status of Ukraine and the Balkans? How should a special relationship be worked out with Russia? What kind of sustainable, good neighbor policies can be established toward countries on the southern shore of the Mediterranean? Can the European Union become more integrated if its borders are not fixed?

Should the European Union be a fully constituted political entity with some capacity for worldwide power projection? Or should it be basically a single market with some ad hoc joint decision making in specific policy fields by varying coalitions of member states - a kind of neo-Medieval arrangement, in which various players with differentiated spheres of authority are engaged at different levels of integration?

The key question underlying all these others is whether the Ber-lin-Paris partnership will be strong enough to tie the enlarged Union together. The answer to that question is unknown, although the recent positive developments in the relationship suggest that it is heading in the right direction.

The new energy that both governments are drawing from the 40th anniversary of the Elysee Treaty is surprisingly good news, particularly in view of the speed with which events have moved since the German elections, after months of deadlock. In addition to some practical steps to improve bi-lateral relations, for example in the field of language instruction, both countries will now be able to make a highly positive contribution to the Convention, as many had hoped.

France and Germany, how-ever, will have to prove in the near future that they were not just setting out some fancy birthday party decorations. France still might withdraw into its corner if it does not find the place in the enlarged Europe that it believes it deserves. And Germany, intoxicated with the heady aroma of the "Berlin Republic," is less and less willing to shoulder the responsibility or the financial burden of an enlarged Europe alone. Real battles over the EU budget may lie ahead.

Berlin and Paris are now in the process of coordinating their positions to see if they can find common approaches to the main EU problems over the next three years.

A good working partnership between Paris and Berlin is needed more than ever to shape the en-larged European Union. For the moment there is a sparkling new look to the relationship. History will reveal, however, whether the foundations of a durable new deal between the two countries have now been laid.

 Ulrike Guérot is Head of the EU Unit at the Research Institute of the German Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin. She previously was Deputy Director, Department of European and International Affairs, German Employers' Association; Senior Research Fellow, Groupement d'Etudes et de Recherches Notre Europe; and Director of Communication, Association for the Monetary Union of Europe.


This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number IV, Issue number I in the Winter of 2003.

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