Restarting the Franco-German Engine

Alexander Privitera

BRINK News & Università degli Studi Guglielmo Marconi

Alexander Privitera a Geoeconomics Non-Resident Senior Fellow at AICGS. He is a columnist at BRINK news and professor at Marconi University. He was previously Senior Policy Advisor at the European Banking Federation and was the head of European affairs at Commerzbank AG. 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.

After months of very visible frostiness, the Franco-German tandem is working on a reset: Berlin and Paris have realized they cannot afford the relationship to degrade further. Regardless of shifts in the balance of power within the European Union, real or perceived, all decisions on politically sensitive legislative files still require a compromise between Paris and Berlin to have any chance of advancing within European institutions. Working together is a necessary precondition to make any progress within the EU.

On paper, the governments of Olaf Scholz and Emmanuel Macron should be closely aligned: both claim to be strongly pro-European and share progressive agendas, green ambitions, and the same geopolitical challenges. Yet, the war in Ukraine has thrown a spanner into what could have been a revitalized Franco-German engine. Emmanuel Macron’s current frustration in part stems from high expectations and, probably, a dose of gallic impatience. It is certainly true that Germany is struggling to define its own Zeitenwende, the tectonic shift in geopolitical and economic priorities caused by Russia’s aggression in Ukraine. Germany’s overreliance on Russian gas and the Chinese market needs to be replaced by still elusive alternatives. A growing number of businesses are pivoting towards the United States. But politicians in Berlin are increasingly wary that overdependence on America may also erode Germany’s industrial base. The ruling coalition of Social Democrats, Greens, and Free Democrats is still busy trying to strike a difficult internal balance. As ideas and key political personalities jockey for attention on the domestic stage, within the ruling coalition, and sometimes even within their own respective parties, Scholz, at least in public, has taken a hands-off approach. Communication with key partners, including France, suffered, causing some observers to decry the emergence of an inward-looking Germany, on the cusp of turning once again into the sick man of Europe. Indeed, the announcements of relevant decisions, from responding to calls to arm Ukraine to the need to cushion the blow of rising energy prices on Germans, were often timed clumsily.

However, while some concerns about the new German government are real, others are not entirely fair. It is indeed true that Berlin is taking its time, but it would not be the first time Germany struggles to find quick common responses with its main European partner. The French president’s assertive Europe agenda already suffered in the past, at the time because of the customary caution of Scholz’ predecessor, Angela Merkel. It took the COVID-19 emergency and the fact that she was no longer standing for reelection to finally remove Merkel’s reluctance to agree to common EU funds in response to the economic fallout of the pandemic. As Merkel finally bowed to the need for more fiscal burden sharing within the EU out of fear the bloc may face yet another existential crisis, the French side built up expectations a pro-European social democratic successor may seamlessly follow up on those achievements—not least because as Merkel’s finance minister, Scholz had played an important role in supporting the common European crisis fund.

Both sides need to recognize that a seamlessly working Franco-German engine is the exception, not the rule. The partnership requires patience and pragmatism and plenty of willpower.

Unfortunately, the war has made things more difficult, as Berlin now needs to fundamentally revisit some of its geopolitical and economic priorities. With the German version of globalization turned into rubble, the French leadership may have seen a new window of opportunity to push its own vision of greater strategic autonomy of the EU. What it needed was a set of concrete joint proposals, including on trade, competition, and common industrial policy. However, given how fundamental those issues are for Germany, it is understandable the new chancellor initially evaded French insistence, instead voicing generalities about the need to abolish most country vetoes in the EU decision-making mechanism at some point in the future.

In the meantime, the list of mutual recriminations was growing, from disagreements on energy subsidies and gas price caps to difficult discussions on the need to build new gas pipelines connecting Spain to Germany. Even common defense projects stalled. As to the need to reform the fiscal and economic rules governing the EU—they are currently suspended—and more ambitious calls to provide permanent common funds for emergencies the EU faces or may face in the future, the chancellery has been quite circumspect, leaving it to the finance minister Christian Lindner to voice traditional German concerns about the dangers of profligate fiscal spending.

Both sides have worked in recent weeks to finally bridge differences, avoid confrontation, and finally move forward. As a sign of a fresh push to get the relationship back on track, German Minister of Foreign Affairs Annalena Baerbock visited Paris on November 21. France’s Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne then met Scholz in Berlin. Berlin and Paris confirmed they finally reached a deal to move to the next development stage for the next-generation Franco-German-Spanish fighter jet system FCAS. Partners are also working on a new date for their postponed joint government meeting. The highly symbolic date of January 22 is fast approaching, as it marks 60 years after the signature of the historic Elysée Treaty. By then both sides need to demonstrate the much-trumpeted fresh start has legs.

Both sides need to recognize that a seamlessly working Franco-German engine is the exception, not the rule. The partnership requires patience and pragmatism and plenty of willpower. France and Germany rarely instinctively share methods or objectives. Compromises between leaders have always been the result of very difficult negotiations, regardless of whether the aim was to agree on the bilateral friendship with the Elysee Treaty in 1963 or the goal was to allow the EU to leap forward with the Maastricht Treaty in 1992. Personal bonds established between German chancellors and French presidents have usually been the result of acts of will. Think of the difficult partnership between Merkel and Francois Hollande—incidentally Macron’s predecessor and former boss—or the rocky beginnings of the friendship between Gerhard Schröder and Jacques Chirac, to name a few examples of the more recent past. All of them eventually demonstrated the ability to find common ground, albeit often based on low common denominators. Former German finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble once famously declared that any German government is “condemned to cooperate closely with France.” It is a verdict that still stands.

The lack of chemistry between Scholz and Macron should not, therefore, be an impediment to a close partnership. However, a stronger personal bond is indeed necessary if both leaders decide to jointly embark on a more ambitious journey. This is where Scholz still needs to prove he can be different from his predecessor Merkel.  The goal would be to avoid a familiar situation, one in which the partner in Berlin primarily focuses on small steps and damage control. Such behavior would permanently frustrate the French leader and cause the famous Zeitenwende to shrink to a narrowly defined set of policy changes, rather than an attempt to make Germany and the whole of the EU stronger and more resilient.

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.