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Berlin / Paris

Europe needs the strong leadership duo of Germany and France – will the two countries take up the challenge?

Daniela Schwarzer, 08.11.2018
German Federal Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron
German Federal Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron © Presse- und Informationsamt der Bundesregierung

Time and again in recent decades, Paris and Berlin have provided the decisive impetus for the advancement of European integration. However, the EU has changed – and with it so have the potential and function of the Franco-German tandem. Now, at a time when the EU is under great internal and external pressure, the increased complexity of the political situation makes bilateral cooperation to strengthen Europe not only more difficult and more contentious, but also more necessary than ever to advance the development of the EU in the very areas where it threatens to fall apart. For the last decade the EU has struggled from one crisis to the next. After the financial, banking and sovereign debt crises of 2008 created growing social and pol­itical tensions within and between several states, the so-called migration crisis of 2015 gave rise to frictions between eastern and western Europe. Stresses and strains. As a result, the debate about the future of Europe became more controversial and more politicised. Now, a few months before the European elections of May 2019, there is considerable concern that Eurosceptic parties will curb cooperation and advances towards integration as a result of a stronger presence in the 
European Parliament and the appointment of EU-critical representatives to the Commission alongside the government representatives in the European Council and the Council of Ministers. And yet – in the areas of migration policy, internal and external security as well as the eurozone, for ex­ample – measures are required to complete the unfinished integration process of past decades so that the EU can continue to offer stability, prosperity and protection.

Since the current government in Berlin was formed in March 2018, Franco-German cooper­ation has gained momentum, even if President Macron had to wait over half a year for a response to his speech on Europe at the Sorbonne in September 2017. The Franco-German summit in Meseberg on 18 June 2018 was an important milestone towards finding a bilateral compromise – for example, in relation to the eurozone. Berlin and Paris now want to work for the completion of the banking union and the introduction of a eurozone budget by 2021 that is to consist of national contributions, tax revenues and European funds on a multiannual basis. In add­ition, the European Stability Mechanism (ESM) is to be developed further. 

The proposals clearly balance German and French interests because, for example, in addition to reinforcing fiscal instruments and the rescue mechan­ism, they also contain measures to strengthen national accountability and control mechanisms. Despite this compromise between solidarity and individual responsibility, between the logic of the market and the need for political action, however, differences of opinion continue to exist on how the eurozone should function.

Because the French, demand-oriented outlook differs significantly from the German, supply-oriented view, Macron attaches greater importance to a eurozone budget, whereas the German government rejects transfer mechanisms. Work still needs to be done on a broader understanding of the necessary instruments for a common currency area.

However, the possibility of a Franco-German understanding has improved because Macron has a comprehensive desire for reform and is priori­tising an increase in the innovative force, flexibility and competitiveness of the French economy. Other EU member states see the Franco-German comprom­ise critically – for example, the eight northern and eastern European countries that spoke out against a eurozone budget, among other things, in an open letter published in summer 2018.

When it comes to EU migration policy, Berlin and Paris support the strengthening of Frontex, the European border protection force. They argue in favour of creating a European agency to coordinate asylum policy and want to increase cooperation with countries of origin and transit countries. At the same time, they aim to implement a fair system of burden-sharing and refugee admission, an initiative that is greeted with scepticism in eastern Europe.

Berlin and Paris also want to strengthen the foreign and security policy of the Union – for ex­ample, by creating a European Security Council 
and introducing majority decisions in the CFSP. Furthermore, they want to move ahead with the European coordination of UN affairs, an opportun­ity that presents itself in 2019/20 when Germany will hold a non-permanent seat in the UN Security Council.

The development of defence policy also has priority, but differences of opinion are holding back advances, for example, in the development of military capabilities. Despite mutual support in Mali, northern Africa and Syria, the strategic cultures of two states differ. This becomes most obvious in the importance attached to military missions as opposed to civilian operations.

Progress is most effective in the field of arms cooperation when both countries are involved together: at present, however, obstacles need to be overcome – for example, with regard to a real readiness for long-term bilateral cooperation in key sectors, to industrial strategy and to different stances with regard to controls on arms exports. Furthermore, the two countries differ on the question of how and in which groups cooperation can be best realised. First and foremost, France favours pragmatic cooperation in small, flexible and, above all, responsive groups that make it possible to carry out effective operations. Germany, on the other hand, pursues an inclusive approach that is embedded within the EU framework to prevent divisions.

When it comes to deepening the eurozone, France is also more willing than Germany to move ahead with only this group of 19 countries. For Germany’s part, it has a greater interest in avoiding a split within the internal market between the members and non-members of the eurozone.

If the EU is to continue to develop in the face of its internal and external challenges, then this will be best achieved with a strong leadership duo of Berlin and Paris. The meeting of the European Council in December 2018 is the right moment to send a clear signal that the EU takes seriously the concerns of the population and criticism of the EU without sacrificing the European idea in the face of populist rhetoric.
A Franco-German list of compromises, which should be presented at the summit, is the right signal. However, bringing on board other EU governments and general publics, as well as convincing critics in their own countries, is a very big ask. Berlin attaches greater significance than Paris to the task of involving Eurosceptic governments, like those in central and eastern Europe. Both governments must take up this challenge.


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