External Publications

July 05, 2017

France and Germany: Pairing up to Repair Europe

An interview with Claire Demesmay in Green European Journal

Regardless of whether Angela Merkel or Martin Schulz is elected in September 2017, the next German chancellor’s relationship with Emmanuel Macron and France will be crucial for the EU’s future. The Franco-German relationship has always involved constructive cooperation, but it has also been marked by a certain tension and rivalry. Is this somewhat dysfunctional “couple” fit to lead such a large European family? Can the historical “engine of Europe” still propel European integration forward?


Republished with the kind permission of Green European Journal. Click here for the original interview in French.

Green European Journal: How would you, as head of the DGAP’s program on Franco-German relations, describe how the French elections and French concerns are perceived in Germany, and vice versa?

Claire Demesmay: Never before has a French election been as closely followed in Germany. This was, first and foremost, because the campaign revealed an unprecedented degree of political polarization. Germans realized that its outcome would have a direct, long-term impact on all of Europe’s partners. Had Marine le Pen come to power, it would have jeopardized the whole European project – and with it, the decades-old narrative of Germany being well integrated into the European Union. Emmanuel Macron’s election discourse corresponded 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 eurozone’s internal problems 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 – including pressure from migration, to which Europeans still haven’t provided a lasting response; the continuing threats from terrorism and conflict (Syria, Ukraine); and a transatlantic relationship that has taken a battering since the election of Donald Trump.

Berlin recognizes 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-skeptic party like Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) could certainly enter the Bundestag, but it is fairly certain that the country will be governed by a pro-European coalition after the elections. 

It will be interesting to see if the French election will lead to a higher intensity of debate on European issues during the German campaign. For the moment, the candidates are being cautious.  Since May 2017, Macron’s success has shown that a pro-European position will 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 and speak more about Europe than they have in previous campaigns, including providing constructive proposals for the future.

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

Demesmay: First, the good news. With the election of Macron, the conditions are in place for a more dynamic Franco-German cooperation. There is no doubt that Macron wants to work closely with Berlin. We see that in the make-up of the new French government, in which experts on – and friends of – Germany are well represented. Right from the start, Macron has received broad encouragement from German politicians across the political spectrum. In addition to this, he is insisting on internal reforms, for example in the labor market, to return France’s credibility on the European stage. This discourse resonates with the current narratives in Berlin. Both countries are also now acutely aware of their shared responsibility to tackle the problems facing the EU.

However, the partnership will have to demonstrate its effectiveness on the ground, and it needs to have plenty of staying power. For there are problems in abundance. In many areas – and this is the less good news – the interests and approaches of the two countries diverge. Painful compromises will be necessary. How ready are Paris and Berlin for this? From the socioeconomic point of view, France has worrying levels of unemployment and weak purchasing power, whereas businesses in Germany have a workforce problem. Beyond that, France needs to give its citizens prospects for a rapidly improved labor market, including training programs. But the government cannot start an investment program along the lines of Gerhard Schröder’s “Agenda 2010” initiative because it has committed to budgetary orthodoxy. Whence Macron’s plan for a eurozone budget. In Germany, however, it is budgetary stability that reassures people. Tax reductions are more popular than investment, especially if it happens in neighboring countries. These circumstances make a qualitative leap in integration difficult. Hostile reactions to Macron’s criticisms of German trade surpluses reveal the extent of the divide. But for progress to happen, it won’t be enough for Berlin to support the labor market reforms in France!

Apart from differences in approach and their different interests, Paris and Berlin face the common 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 collaboration formats involving 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 closely with Italy, Sweden, Greece, or a representative from the Visegrad Group – in other words, by talking to member states with opposing views.

The same reasoning applies to the economy, energy, and defense. Above and beyond this, it is clearly in the interest of France and Germany to get involved in creating European structures. This will not only keep them from being in a permanent state of demand but also help them avoid deadlocks reinforced by the lack of a common framework. The refugee crisis has shown that German leadership is all the more contested because EU legislation doesn’t provide answers for all outstanding issues. The countries of the Visegrad Group, opposing Berlin’s request that they accept refugees, has been prompted to create intergovernmental alliances. With clear European rules guaranteed by European institutions, alliances of certain member states against others would lose their legitimacy. For this to happen, however, Paris and Berlin will also have to play the “supranational game.”

GEJ: What can we expect of the future German tandem with Macron on issues such as defense, “social Europe,” climate change and energy, and the eurozone?

Demesmay: Whether Angela Merkel or Martin Schulz is elected 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, however, each party’s choice of its coalition partner will play a part, as the chancellor does not decide alone.  So I expect that the degree of emphasis would differ.

Economic and social cooperation would be easiest with a social democratic chancellor.  Like Macron, Martin Schulz favors European investment projects and the creation of a eurozone budget. In contrast, the  CDU/CSU is very reticent, and finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble is against it. (Schäuble is both the inspiration for and the guardian of “schwarze Null” [a fully balanced budget, or one that is even “in the black”’].) Merkel is apparently prepared to consider it, but there is quite a leap between acknowledging an idea and actually realizing it. In particular, the project (at least in its most ambitious form) would be blocked if the finance ministry again becomes obsessed with strictly adhering to budget orthodoxy. In general Macron and Schulz would have the greatest convergence on social issues; for instance, the SPD advocates for minimum wage to bring social standards closer together. But I doubt that this would have a secondary effect on their European partners.

Nonetheless, on matters of security and defense, Franco-German cooperation would be more dynamic under Chancellor Merkel. Over the past few years, Paris and Berlin have agreed on a series of proposals, and Macron has taken these on. They include the creation of a European headquarters for military operations, and a European investment fund for military equipment. If Chancellor Merkel is re-elected, discussions would continue in this direction. Martin Schultz also favors these plans, but unlike Merkel, he is against a substantial increase in defense spending of the sort called for by Donald Trump. Macron and Merkel are both committed to a defense budget of 2 percent of public spending. That being the case, whatever the result of the September election, we can expect some tooth gnashing in Berlin when Paris requests greater military involvement.

GEJ: If the Franco-German couple has become increasingly effective over the years at the administrative and bureaucratic level, why does it continue to lack visibility and popularity at the political level?

Demesmay: Even if it hasn’t always been very visible in recent years, the Franco-German partnership hasn’t come to a halt. The best example is doubtless the joint management of the conflict with Russia around the crisis in Ukraine. Here, Paris and Berlin have appeared united. That said, the two countries have proposed few really ambitious projects in recent years, no real projects 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 and 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 maneuvering within Europe. What is more, this bilateral relationship is structurally imbalanced, with Germany in the dominant position. This lack of symmetry 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 change the game, even if the marked imbalance between the two countries will take time to regulate. But Macron will only attain his goals if his team succeeds in improving the country’s socioeconomic conditions. They must also convince the French, who have shown how tempted they are to retreat into nationalism, that the EU is more of a solution than a problem. This will be a complex task, and the new president has only a small window to do so. He also has the parallel challenge of managing Germany’s very high expectations, with all the attendant enthusiasm and impatience toward 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 US, and with the intensification of conflicts on Europe’s borders, Germany is all too 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 its own security and protecting its citizens. Considering the new rebalancing that Brexit will bring to the EU, Germany is more than ever in a leadership role and wants to share this with reliable partners.

In these conditions, the security and defense policy best lends itself to reviving Franco-German – and wider European – cooperation. The issue ticks all the boxes, or almost all of them: threats are heightened, traditional defense 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 that they will not deepen the gulf between two categories of member state (compared, for example, to the issue of extending monetary union).

GEJ: You, along with other intellectuals wrote in Le Monde that it was time to abandon the idea of homogeneous European integration. Are you calling for a multi-speed Europe?

Demesmay: In our reflection group [with IFRI and the Stiftung Genshagen], our starting point was a twofold 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 one example, which leads to the blocking of various avenues that could provide common solutions. This contradiction must be countered – and quickly – 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 giving their feelings of responsibility toward Europe – I think that these two countries are key. 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. Areas that are less political – such as adapting our economies to the digital revolution – should be considered as well. This can also enable us in the longer term to win back those member states who are now tempted to retreat into nationalism.

The second pitfall is the heightening of intra-European tensions. It would be very counterproductive to exclude states that are attached to common action but sidelined by what could be seen as Franco-German dominance. Paris and Berlin must absolutely work with all those who wish to work with them – including the smallest countries. Personally, I am arguing for “flexible constellations” of member states, in line with subjects and interests. Organizing such groups around a Franco-German core would underpin European cooperation with a certain stability and durability. To me, it seems neither necessary nor relevant to institutionalize this kind of cooperation. That 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, however, as this is already an established union at the heart of the union. But that makes it all the more important to guarantee other cooperation initiatives as much flexibility as possible.

The above text is a slightly modified version of the interview translated by Diana Toynbee that was published on June 29, 2017 in Green European Journal.

Bibliographic data

Green European Journal, June 29, 2017

Topics & Regions