The Legacy of the Elysee Treaty

In a conversation with his ambassador to France, Chancellor Konrad Adenauer once impatiently remarked that Germans needed to be more closely bound to France for a very simple reason: to prevent them from drifting towards Russia or starting “to dance” between blocks (Western and Soviet). The old chancellor then proceeded to describe his people as politically immature, dreamers, and far too comfortable. Scarred by the tragic history of his country, Adenauer did not entirely trust his fellow countrymen. A year later, on January 22nd 1963, the eighty-seven year old chancellor and then French President Charles de Gaulle signed the Elysee treaty, which was later hailed as the symbolic turning point in Franco-German relations.

Fifty years later, the Franco German engine is showing signs of rust. The current French President Francois Hollande and the political establishment in Paris fear that France might have permanently become the junior partner in a Europe now openly dominated by Germany. And even for many Germans, too much power causes unease.

With the benefit of hindsight, it could be argued that the writing was on the wall—even fifty years ago. The seeds for the current imbalance between France and Germany that so many commentators describe as the result of German reunification were already present at birth. When De Gaulle and Adenauer gathered in Paris to sign the famous treaty, it merely marked the end of the first phase of Franco-German post war rapprochement. But it certainly failed to meet the most ambitious goals of de Gaulle, and was far from a turning point in the relationship of the two nations.

It helps to remind us that General De Gaulle’s return to power in 1958 initially sent off alarm bells in Bonn. Adenauer feared that the French president might try to pursue an anti-German nationalistic course, thus weakening NATO and the European Community. When the two leaders finally met in the general’s house in Colombey les Deux Eglises in September 1958, a suspicious Adenauer was struck by the openness of De Gaulle. De Gaulle repeatedly stressed the need for Germany and France to move even closer. Adenauer concluded that the new French leader was not a man of the past after all. However, only days after this promising start, the chancellor learned about a French memorandum addressed to London and Washington outlining De Gaulle’s offer to form an exclusive directorate with the UK and the U.S. Adenauer was furious. The following five years from 1958 to the signing of the Elysee treaty in 1963 were filled with ups and downs. Both leaders showed the willingness to work together, but their underlying interests often diverged.

Having failed to forge a triumvirate with the Anglo-Saxons, De Gaulle’s increasingly turned to Germany. From the general’s perspective, the negotiations with Adenauer needed to accomplish two main objectives: cement the relationship with a Western Germany relegated to a permanent subordinate role and loosen the Western alliance in order to weaken American predominance in Western Europe.  Seen under this light, the talks leading to the Elysee treaty utterly failed to fulfill De Gaulle’s most ambitious expectations. Yet, the agreement has since become the symbol for a long lasting marriage between old enemies, and is even cited as a possible blueprint for reconciliation in other parts of the world.

De Gaulle’s attitude towards Germany had a deep impact on the overall attitude of France toward its neighbor in the following decades. It was largely dominated by the need to contain Western Germany and use the close relationship to regain a more dominant role for France on the old continent. Adenauer was instead trying to move beyond the perceived constraints and dangers inherent in a purely national approach to Europe.

While De Gaulle wanted to restore France’s glorious past with the help of an only partially sovereign Germany, Adenauer’s approach was dictated by the conviction that history should not repeat itself. Adenauer was moving beyond the traditional boundaries of nation states. In one of the many conversations with his friend, U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, the American told Adenauer that the national sovereignty that many European nations so jealously guarded had become an unaffordable luxury.  Adenauer himself dismissed the distinction between a Europe of nations and an integrated Europe as false. To him they were two sides of the same coin. For De Gaulle’s France (and the UK) this attitude was understandable, yet foreign. Germany had learned how to share sovereignty simply because it had been forced to do so. After all it had lost the war. Instead, France and the UK had emerged victorious from the conflict. The idea that a nation would willingly cede partial control over its destiny to a supranational body was unsettling to De Gaulle 50 years ago as it still is unsettling to many French and most Britons today.

Not surprisingly, the original tension between the reluctance on the part of European nations to move closer together and the need for such integration has dominated the European debate for decades and is still unresolved. When European nations have taken steps towards greater shared sovereignty, it has usually been triggered by fear. Once pressure subsides, the pace of integration slows down.

It is beyond dispute that, while for France the introduction of the common currency some thirty years after the signing of the Elysee treaty was aimed at containing a unified Germany, for Chancellor Helmut Kohl it was also a step towards the goals set out by his political forefather Konrad Adenauer. Kohl repeatedly tried to convince his main partner, French president Francois Mitterand, that German unification and European unity were two sides of the same coin. The French president recognized that the window of opportunity for German concessions was closing fast. If he were to wait until the German engine reached full potential, convincing Germany to relinquish some of its newly regained full sovereignty would have become much harder. Kohl basically agreed with Mitterand. It was obvious that France was acting from a position of growing weakness and Germany from a position of increasing strength. By agreeing to abolish the symbol of German postwar wealth, the Deutschmark, the chancellor of German unity, just like Adenauer before him, demonstrated that he too wanted to move beyond the boundaries of national sovereignty. And just like Adenauer, Kohl himself demonstrated a lingering distrust in the long-term political wisdom of his own citizens. It was safer to put his country on an irreversible path towards a European political union before it might be tempted to explore other options.

For France, containing Germany has always been the driving rational behind the Franco-German rapprochement and European integration. This holds true both in the case of the conservative France of the early 1960s as it was for the socialist dominated France of the early 1990s. Germany’s neighbor had been on the defensive for most of the 20th century. Even during the current European debt crisis, it is common to hear Europeans lament that they have unintentionally been instrumental in helping Germany once again become the most powerful nation in Europe. Conscious of deepening misgivings about its growing power in Europe, Germany’s political elite are pushing for more Europe. But in order to achieve this, Germany needs to convince its partners that it is genuinely prepared to forge a political union that does not reflect only a German view of what the continent should look like.

Fifty years after the Elysee treaty the Franco-German relationship badly needs to be nurtured. The lack of chemistry between the current leaders of the two countries is only a minor problem. What really matters is that a weak France is not in Germany’s interest. An overly strengthened Germany isn’t either. What also matters is the fact that stronger ties between the two nations should not come at the expense of the rest of the continent. In fact an exclusive Franco-German relationship that moves ahead in sudden accelerations and expects everybody else to fall in line is at least as dangerous as growing estrangement between the two nations.

Despite some nostalgia in Berlin for the close relationship between former president Nicolas Sarkozy and Chancellor Angela Merkel, the duo dubbed “Merkozy” in fact made things worse rather than better. The paradox is that while the relationship quite blatantly exposed the French subordinate role in the partnership, the Merkozy method also marked the triumph of old Gaullist principles, i.e. closer coordination between powerful sovereign states at the expense of an integrated European approach. And while the old Chancellor Konrad Adenauer was at times tempted by De Gaulle to embrace his idea of Europe, the signature of the Elysee treaty marked the end of the Gaullist temptation for Germany. Fifty years later, Hollande’s France finally appears to be slowly moving out of the long shadow of the proud general. It would be ironic if Merkel’s Germany now decided to embrace De Gaulle’s vision of a Europe of sovereign nations after having it systematically dismantled over five decades.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies.

Alexander Privitera

Alexander Privitera is a Non-Resident Fellow at AICGS. He focuses primarily on Germany’s European policies and their impact on relations between the United States and Europe. Previously, Mr. Privitera was the Washington-based correspondent for the leading German news channel, N24. As a journalist, over the past two decades he has been posted to Berlin, Bonn, Brussels, and Rome. Mr. Privitera was born in Rome, Italy, and holds a degree in Political Science (International Relations and Economics) from La Sapienza University in Rome.