July 17, 2015

Opening up the Franco-German Dialogue

How Trialogues Can Enhance European Integration

As the EU confronts an unprecedented number of crises, it is crucial to open up the longstanding Franco-German tandem to other partners. The ten authors of this compendium explore ten such possible triangular configurations – involving, respectively, Greece, Italy, Poland, Romania, the Nordic countries, the United Kingdom, the Western Balkans, Turkey, the European Commission, and the European Parliament – and point to several other potentially productive “trialogues.”



The Franco-German tandem has a double purpose. First of all, it aims to smooth and overcome divergent interests and forge bilateral positions on both sides of the Rhine. In addition to this, it exercises leadership on common agreements that are both acceptable to the other EU partner countries and, to the extent that this is possible, open to them. Since the Treaty of Lisbon’s difficult ratification and the 2010 outbreak of debt crisis in the euro zone, however, France and Germany have found it increasingly difficult to fulfill this double role. Experts and observers speak today of an unprecedented “crisis” (unseen since 1949) in the two countries’ relations, both in terms of leadership and of mutual trust. The crisis has only been amplified by the dramatic worsening since 2009 of the economies of EU countries bordering the Mediterranean, alongside the accentuation of economic differences between France and Germany both in terms of performance and in the debate over reforms.

Yet when it comes to defending higher values such as peace and security in Europe, Franco-German cooperation has always been present. The reactions of German leaders to the January 2015 terrorist attacks on Paris recently attested to this. So did Franco-German leadership in efforts to solve the Ukraine crisis, which led to the Minsk Treaty a month later. The very existence of negotiations involving Paris, Berlin, Moscow, and Kiev in the framework provided by the Normandy format both at the level of the foreign ministers as well as on the highest echelon serves as a reminder that the EU cannot forego the Franco-German tandem in conducting dialogue with a third country as soon as its vital interests are at stake. The negotiations involving François Hollande, Angela Merkel, and Vladimir Putin have shown that Putin is not in a position to divide the Europeans. They also show that, in matters of war and peace, even the EU’s highest officials (the President of the Council of Europe or the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy) do not carry the same weight as the duo formed by the German Chancellor and the President of the French Republic.

Paris and Berlin, moreover, have a specific interest in reestablishing their duo as a driving force within the European context. Working with France permits Germany to take on an international role that corresponds to its economic power without playing the part of the “lone ranger” – which its partners would not hesitate to label a “will to power.” As for France, the partnership allows it to assert that its current economic crisis in no way calls into question its conception of its place in the world and the responsibilities this entails. The Franco-German tandem’s role in the Russia-Ukraine crisis, even if it may not ultimately achieve the desired effect, also underlines the extent to which the short-lived idea of divvying up geographic tasks in the EU’s neighborhood policy (the south for France, the east for Germany) was erroneous and counterproductive. France does not have the means – if it ever had them – to serve as the sole intermediary between the EU and the countries south of the Mediterranean basin. Former President Nicolas Sarkozy learned a bitter lesson from his projected Union for the Mediterranean. The same is true for Germany, which cannot serve as the sole spokesman toward Russia on behalf of the entire EU; for that scenario would amount to transforming the central EU countries back into Mitteleuropa and thereby weaken European equilibrium.

Whatever the degree of rapprochement between France and Germany as of early 2015, and whatever the desire of the two countries’ leaders to exercise common leadership, the tandem nevertheless faces structural difficulties. Even before the EU was enlarged to the east, the Franco-German cooperation had been characterized as “indispensible, but insufficient.” The EU’s shift from 15 to 28 member states has only made this deficit more obvious, which makes it more important than ever to open up the duo to other actors and dynamics. On numerous occasions – whether at the time of the war in Iraq of 2003 or the efforts to save the euro zone during the “Merkozy” era (the neologism formed by combining the names of the two leaders at the time, Merkel and Sarkozy) – exclusive Franco-German bilateralism has met with outside resistance. Sustainable and visible dialogue with partner countries as well as with the European Parliament and the European Commission has become a condition for advancing Franco-German proposals, which are often the result of compromise and born of the initial differences between Paris and Berlin. After all, a great many dividing lines exist within the 28-member EU – whether the economic North-South divide revealed by the economic crisis, the traditional opposition between the “large” and “small” member states, or even the differences at the level of integration between those who belong to the euro zone and those who do not – to say nothing of those for whom an exit from the euro could be possible, or even an exit from the EU itself.

In this sense, greater openness to third countries must in the long term accompany Franco-German cooperation – whether or not these third countries be EU member states. The “trialogue” format should certainly not limit itself to a country like Russia when it challenges Europe’s security. It is also vital for partners with whom France and Germany hold traditionally close ties – ties that are nonetheless not without their friction or tension – such as Great Britain, Italy, or even Poland. This also applies to countries thrust center stage by current circumstances, such as Greece in terms of debt crisis management, or Turkey in the war against the Islamic State. Beyond this, trilateral conversation can and must involve groups of countries that are close for geopolitical reasons to such a degree that despite their differences they genuinely share experiences and interests, even if they do not always share the same positions. The Nordic countries, for example, because of their proximity to Russia, are aware of the destabilizing risk that country represents. Another example are the countries of the Western Balkans, which, as potential EU candidates, are the source of many migrants to the EU.

Holding such exchanges in a more systematic manner would help fill many gaps and thereby adapt the Franco-German tandem’s driving force to the reality of the enlarged EU. In doing so, they would help the EU overcome the dividing lines that crisscross the Union despite its characteristic European spirit and willingness to compromise. France and Germany, as central geographic, demographic, and economic EU powers, have particular relationships with each of the EU’s member states, albeit in different shapes and forms. Raising the level of cooperation among France, Germany, and “third countries” could thus ultimately contribute to surmounting these flaws and consolidating the Union as a whole.

Just because they need to open up their cooperation does not mean that Berlin and Paris should abandon their current bilateral relationship and substitute in its place an institutionalized trilateral cooperation that would take up the same codes and mechanisms (joint council of ministers, meetings of members of parliament, exchanges of officials, for example). The tandem must be not only preserved but also consolidated, for it represents a precious achievement based on a culture of exchange and compromise that has been enriched over time. It is more a matter of complementing this cooperation on an ad hoc basis with formats that are more open, flexible, and informal depending on what issues are at stake. There is absolutely no need to create new mechanisms or institutions for this to work. Quite the contrary. What matters here is that France and Germany bring third parties into their discussions. In doing so, they will make their positions more complimentary, therefore enriching them, will be able to increase the weight of their respective positions at the international level and finally, and above all, give them more legitimacy in the eyes of their European partners.

This study explores the potential but also the limits of opening up the Franco-German cooperation. Of course it would have been neither practicable nor pertinent to sketch all 26 possible triangular constellations that might result from introducing other EU members into the dialogue. Rather, in order to give an account of the complexity of European governance, this publication concentrates on just a few key players. All are very different, and each example points to a particular form of cooperation that might be seen as typical. Most of these involve EU member states, with varied degrees of integration. Some of them participate in all aspects of European policy, starting with monetary union – for example Italy and Greece. Others, like Poland, are outside the euro zone but plan to join it one day. Still others, such as the United Kingdom, rule out this possibility while also keeping clear of the EU Customs Union. Among those third countries most likely to work closely with the Franco-German tandem, we also find states that are not part of the EU but could nonetheless make interesting partners, such as Turkey and the countries of the Western Balkans. Finally, two case studies explore the opening of the Franco-German duo to the EU’s two major institutions: first, the European Commission, whose role has in the course of the past decades been limited by its intergovernmental character of crisis management but which could develop now that Jean-Claude Juncker has taken over its presidency; and second, the European Parliament, a body that is not suited to cultivating privileged relations with member states but is nonetheless an institution in which Germany carries particular weight, particularly compared to France, and in which the informal forums for negotiation could play a stronger role.

To ensure comparability of results, the ten case studies presented here are structured along similar lines. All of the authors consider the same three sets of questions. First, they identify what the trilateral cooperation in question has thus far been able to attain and the compromises reached in the past insofar as this contributed to European integration. They then analyze the positions of their respective trilateral partners, highlighting their traditional differences on particular subjects, and infer the overlapping interests and potential points of conflict within the triangles they have sketched. Finally, they identify the policy areas and specific projects of particular promise for future trilateral cooperation.

As different as these triangular constellations may be, all of the authors arrive at the same two-fold conclusion. For one thing, they note the strong asymmetry between the Franco-German duo on one hand and the third party in question, on the other – at the same time highlighting the high degree of institutionalization within the bilateral cooperation, which has no equal among other intra-European bilateral relationships. Beyond this, they note the various types of asymmetry – above all in terms of historical experience, especially for states that are not EU members or that joined the EU at a later phase, such as Romania, and have not yet achieved integration. Asymmetry also takes economic form, as for example a country like Poland, despite its positive momentum of recent years, or Greece, entangled in a crisis that prevents it from developing any constructive cooperation with partners. Finally, asymmetry also touches member states whose engagement in terms of European integration is weak, or even regressive, as with the United Kingdom, or a country like Italy for whom EU policy has only limited impact, despite its pro-European attitude.

There is therefore general consensus that France and Germany form the real core around which the European Union will continue to be built in the future. If the authors have not hesitated to recall some of the duo’s difficulties formulating a common vision and giving impetus to integration, they hardly envision an alternative to their cooperation. They therefore imagine trilateral cooperation in a complementary mode – and this is the second shared consensus. All the authors favor it, even if they tend to temper that optimism with caution. The most pessimistic of the texts, however, is the one touching on cooperation with the United Kingdom. Precisely because of the above-mentioned imbalances, as well as of different goals regarding European integration, most of our authors consider the prospects of trialogues to be limited. None of them refers to one ideal trio. At the same time, on very particular issues, they identify potential that is very much worth exploring in greater depth.

Four major themes emerge, all referring to current topics on which member states continue to act in a piecemeal way and for which common policies are urgently needed. Several years after the beginning of the debt crisis, these include first and foremost economic questions, whether relating to the completion of monetary union and to the administration of public debt (Italy, European Commission, European Parliament) or the fight against poverty and social exclusion (Romania, the Balkans), or the deepening of the common market (United Kingdom). Now, with the EU facing growing instability on its frontiers alongside the risk of terrorism, a number of authors call for a global approach to foreign policy and security. It is evident that geography is a determining criterion here. Certain member states (Poland, Romania, the countries of northern Europe) feel more concerned about the eastern neighborhood, while others (Greece, Italy, Turkey) are focused on the region to the south of the Mediterranean. The Ukraine crisis and tensions with Russia have not only revived interest in questions of common defense but have also shown the importance of developing a common energy policy. From this perspective, the goal is to guarantee continuity of energy supply while at the same time meeting the ambitious climate objectives (Poland, Greece, Turkey, Northern Europe, European Commission, and European Parliament). Finally, the studies in the collection regularly mention migration policies, relating both to intra-European migration (Romania, Balkans) as well as the management of the influx of refugees coming from the south (Italy, Greece, Turkey, European Commission), particularly due to the civil war in Syria.

Only rarely have Europeans simultaneously been confronted with so many acute crises, crises touching not only on the internal cohesion of the European Union but also on the international context. This unprecedented situation, coupled with tensions within the Franco-German relationship, will oblige them to show imagination and to dare to try new forms of cooperation. If it is crucial to reinforce the indispensable Franco-German dialogue, it is also important to open up that dialogue to other partners. From this perspective, it is essential to foster the intersection of different constellations in formats involving three or more states. Such a pragmatic approach would not only permit a deepening of substantive discussions, and therefore to advance integration on particular subjects; it would also reduce obstacles that are connected to implicit hierarchies, whether those be defined by economic power or by the size of the states. If Paris and Berlin have a particular responsibility here in agreeing to open their dialogue to less experienced parties or parties with lesser degrees of integration, not everything depends upon them. Their partners, too, must be prepared to involve themselves in these exchanges and to play the game of compromise. Only in this way can the Franco-German tandem reconnect with its original vocation.

Claire Demesmay and Hans Stark

Berlin and Paris, May 2015

About the Authors

Dr. Céline-Agathe Caro is coordinator for European policy at the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung. In 2009 she participated in the Franco-German Future Dialogue.

Dr. Claire Demesmay heads the program on France/Franco-German relations at the DGAP.

Julie Hamann is a program officer at the DGAP’s program on France/Franco-German relations.

Dr. Barbara Kunz is a research fellow at Ifri’s Study Committee on Franco-German Relations (Cerfa). In 2008 she participated in the Franco-German Future Dialogue.

Isabelle Maras is project leader for “European Dialogue” at the Stiftung Genshagen. In 2008 she participated in the Franco-German Future Dialogue.

Catherine Palpant is an independent expert on EU-Turkish issues and associate fellow at the Institut Français d’Etudes Anatoliennes (IFEA) in Istanbul. In 2008 she participated in the Franco-German Future Dialogue.

Vivien Pertusot heads Ifri’s Brussels office.

Julian Rappold is program officer at the DGAP’s Alfred von Oppenheim Center for European Policy Studies.

Dr. Yann-Sven Rittelmeyer is expert on Franco-German relations and European institutions. In 2009, he participated in the Franco-German Future Dialogue.

Prof. Dr. Hans Stark is professor of contemporary German civilization at the Sorbonne in Paris and heads Ifri’s Study Committee for Franco-German Relations (Cerfa).

Theresia Töglhofer is an associate fellow at the Alfred von Oppenheim Center for European Policy Studies at the DGAP and an expert on the Western Balkans.

Natasha Wunsch is an associate fellow at the Alfred von Oppenheim Center for European Policy Studies at the DGAP and an expert on the Western Balkans.

Bibliographic data

DGAPanalyse 6 (June 2015), 53 pp.

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