I had never fallen for the hype surrounding French President Emmanuel Macron. His view of transatlantic relations did not convince me, and I found his commentary on NATO’s “brain death” unnecessarily disruptive and his policy on Russia outright dangerous.
And yet, at this year’s Munich Security Conference (MSC), I caught myself whispering enthusiastically in the ear of my French neighbour: “your president is simply fantastic!” The Hertie School hosted a small breakfast discussion with the French president on the sidelines of the event. I was lucky enough to be one of around 30 German participants who discussed the requirements for building European sovereignty and its implications for the Franco-German relationship with him. While we sat there and listened to an intellectual tour de force from Macron, who later answered every question in detail and without any arrogance or conceit, he cast a spell over me with his dazzling charisma. After breakfast, it took me quite a while to recover and to recall my – justified – German scepticism. The French president was undoubtedly the star of this year’s MSC. The German government’s representatives, in contrast, looked very – well – German.
Unfortunately, the difficulties in the Franco-German relationship do not simply result from a lack of charisma on the German side. To be sure, a major problem lies in the continuing paralysis and lack of ideas that has accompanied the ruling coalition between conservatives and social democrats from the beginning. But, on most issues, the divide between Berlin and Paris has little to do with leading personnel, and a great deal to do with differing national views of both the challenges Europe faces and solutions to them. This is particularly true in the area of security and defence policy – as became quite clear again during Macron’s speech on the public MSC stage.
While the German chancellor and the French president agree that the world as we know it has gone off the rails, they see the resurgence of great power rivalry from different angles. The Germans find it much more difficult to think and act in classical categories of power politics, while France has fewer problems with this. The French complain that the Germans fail to recognise the urgency of the situation and that they are not moving fast enough. Meanwhile, many in Berlin accuse the French of rushing headlong into foreign policy adventures, and of coming forward with half-baked proposals without having really thought through the consequences.
When it comes to European defence, the Germans concentrate on “European” whereas the French focus on “defence”
The Germans have often been accused of not having responded to Macron. In the area of security and defence, it is not so easy. They do have an idea of how European security should be organised – it’s just not the French one. When it comes to European defence, the Germans concentrate on “European” whereas the French focus on “defence”. The French now follow a very pragmatic approach. It is the mission that determines the coalition, not the other way around. As far as the European Union is concerned, this means that Paris often finds decision-making with all 27 member states too complicated and lengthy. Macron is concerned about the ability to act quickly and flexibly. That is why he has launched the European Intervention Initiative (EI2). And that is why the European mission in the Strait of Hormuz is now a French-led coalition of the willing.
The Germans would, in turn, like to reintegrate both initiatives into the EU framework. They hope to bring the EI2 back under the aegis of the EU’s Permanent Structured Cooperation. In Munich, German Defence Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer spoke of sending an EU mission to the Strait of Hormuz under Article 44 of the Treaty on European Union, entrusting the implementation of the task to a group of member states that are willing, and have the capabilities, to act. This was certainly meant as an offer to France. For Germany to participate militarily in such a mission, an EU mandate is crucial – not least because of a ruling by the Federal Constitutional Court on the Bundeswehr’s foreign missions. Germany wants the EU and NATO to be the central hubs of greater European engagement. There is little support for “more flexible” or “more pragmatic” formats outside both institutions.
For French political elites, the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States has vindicated the deeply rooted scepticism and mistrust of the country that they have always harboured. They are aware that, without US military capabilities, Europeans would be blind, deaf, and dumb for years to come – and, as such, that they are dependent on US involvement in Europe. But many of the decision-makers who shape French foreign policy are convinced that the US will withdraw from Europe eventually and that NATO can no longer guarantee the security of Europe. They see the Trump presidency as an opportunity to build European security capabilities in the long term without the US.
For most German decision-makers, including those in the defence ministry and the Bundeswehr, a US-led NATO remains the key pillar of German defence, regardless of the personality of the current US president. And Berlin pays a lot of attention to its eastern European partners who see the US presence in Europe as a guarantee of their survival.
To hope that German defence policy will become more French is equivalent to waiting for Godot. Likewise, the French are unlikely to change their pragmatic view of, or their ambitions for, European security policy. But their many disagreements should not prevent both countries from trying to seek ways to bridge the divisions. The next opportunity for doing exactly this is the upcoming German presidency of the Council of the EU. Germany’s ambition to create a European “strategic compass” presents a perfect opportunity to align Europeans’ threat perceptions and strategic cultures, and to thereby define the EU’s ambitions for European defence. France has supported this idea. And both countries want the strategic process to successfully end with the French presidency of the Council in 2022. If the Germans developed some of Macron’s determination and energy in the process, that could be helpful. It would certainly be more charming.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.