France and Germany: Europe’s stalling engine

Despite Europe's various crises, the bond of cooperation between France and Germany has not been in evidence

Both France and Germany feel like they are putting their necks on the line for each other. And yet, the Franco-German engine has stalled and the EU is paying the price.

Currently, Europe is confronted with a number of major challenges all at once. The refugee crisis is just one of them, and Germany has been at the centre of it, receiving well over 1 million migrants in 2015. Berlin has sought to organise a collective European response and has expected solidarity from its fellow EU member states. The terrorist threat is another challenge facing Europe, and France has been struck twice in the last year. Paris has also sought to organise a collective European response, and has also expected solidarity from its fellow EU member states.

In both cases, it would have made a significant difference to Europe’s crisis response if both countries had taken a joint lead and supported each other. Such a show of strength would have put much needed European solidarity and cooperation back at the forefront of European politics. And yet, in tackling both of these challenges, there was no strong bond of cooperation between the two countries, despite the potential to set an example to the rest of the EU.

German solidarity with France

French and German officials often talk about how their countries make sure they cooperate and rise in unison to the challenges facing the EU. Germany, for instance, responded boldly to the French call for military solidarity after the 13 November attacks. On the basis of Article 42.7 of the Treaty of the European Union, the government rallied the parliament to authorise a significant military contribution to the UN mission in Mali – currently the most dangerous UN operation for peacekeepers – as well as a national training mission of more than 1,000 military personnel to Iraq, in the context of the fight against ISIS. Berlin also supported French and allied air strikes by providing reconnaissance and refuelling assistance. It also placed a frigate under French command to help protect the naval group led by the aircraft carrier “Charles de Gaulle”. Given Germany’s overall reticence to engage in military operations in Syria, these decisions represented quite a significant contribution.

In fact, the swift move of the German government came at the right time for Paris, which often complains that it does not have the requisite solidarity or “buy-in” to act as a security provider for European interests. The full effect of Berlin’s gesture, however, was limited because this show of solidarity remained bilateral, and did not fit into any broader European initiative. In particular, a joint political initiative to end the fighting in Syria was pre-empted by international negotiations under the leadership of the United States and Russia before it could even be worked out between Paris and Berlin.

French solidarity with Germany

The French government would make a similar case to the Germans in their justification of solidarity. Paris had to come a long way before eventually supporting Berlin’s suggested plan for European refugee quotas, and the French move proved instrumental. Since then, in spite of its disagreements and domestic difficulties, it has never stood in the way of any of Berlin’s initiatives. On the contrary, France promoted key measures such as the establishment of hotspots, or the strengthening of external border control through the EU agency Frontex. France has even displayed Franco-German unity by engaging in an initiative to support Greece, despite Berlin’s “secret deal” with Turkey, which President Hollande was not made aware of in advance. Paris also announced that it will accelerate its effort to relocate refugees in France, according to the quota of 30,000 it has accepted.

This commitment [on refugees] is welcome but still seen by Berlin as falling short of effectively addressing the actual challenges

In the German view, this commitment is welcome but still seen by Berlin as falling short of effectively addressing the actual challenges. When French Prime Minister Manuel Valls confirmed his country’s commitment to fulfilling its quota after visiting a German refugee camp near Munich, his message resounded far less than his other statement that France was not ready to accept any further relocation of refugees. This statement, which indicated that Germany shouldn’t count on France, put Angela Merkel and her government on high alert just as they were working on a resettlement scheme with Turkey. In this moment, for the first time since reunification, Germany was in need of unswerving European solidarity, both to deal with the refugee crisis and to emerge from the domestic cul-de-sac Germany found itself as a result of the crisis. In similar situations before 1990, Germany could always count on France.

On the French side, denial won’t change the fact that their response has fallen short of German expectations, and confirmed to Berlin that it can only rely on itself. Paris fears, among other things, that taking in more refugees will encourage the rise of populist forces in the country. But it should understand that, at the end of the day, populism will rise even more in the face of stalled European solidarity and a failure to effectively manage the crises at hand.

Ensuring greater future cooperation

So what can be done to reboot Franco-German cooperation? There needs to be a better and deeper quid-pro-quo between the two countries. France and Germany can work well together not because all of their interests and preferences are shared, but because they are willing to bridge their many differences in the determination to exercise collective leadership in the EU. The usual route to improving cooperation has been to work towards a European collective interest, at least as defined between Paris and Berlin, rather than to seek out a narrowly defined win-win transaction. In this sense, France and Germany could and should pursue joint leadership on three fronts.

First, regarding the refugee crisis, Germany could probably cope with France’s current decisions on the number of refugees to be relocated if Paris was more committed to finding solutions to other aspects of the crisis. France could further increase its contribution to controlling external borders, or drive the establishment of a genuine EU fund to provide financial support to European host countries. In collaboration with Germany, it could upgrade and restructure humanitarian aid packages to Syria’s neighbours, and engage the international community to participate more in the UNHCR resettlement programme. If the current deal with Turkey fall short of its alleged promises, Paris needs to be ready to work with Berlin on a plan B rather than sit on the fence. The EU institutions in Brussels, and notably the European Commission, would benefit from a more proactive French position.

The usual route to improving cooperation has been to work towards a European collective interest

Secondly, even the broader effort outlined above cannot provide a sustainable response to the crisis if its root causes are not addressed. France and Germany should embark on bolder diplomatic activity to help solve the crisis in Syria. So far, Europeans have asked for a seat at the table, but their action plan seems far from cohesive, and both the Americans and the Russians do not seem to be waiting for the Europeans to get their act together. Discussions cannot solely focus on striking ISIS or on promoting humanitarian corridors. The opportunity represented by the current ceasefire needs to be seized. Berlin and Paris have to make up their mind on the role of Assad and how to promote and implement the transition they would like to see. European interests won’t be taken into account if Europeans do not agree on how to protect and promote them.

Thirdly, France and Germany need to give the EU a stronger sense of direction. Paris and Berlin have managed to stay united in the context of the Brexit negotiations, and have effectively preserved the possibility to further political and economic integration at a later stage. But this has mostly been defensive and reactive. A more proactive and comprehensive vision is needed if the European public are to regain some confidence in the European project. It is unlikely that anything will happen before the French presidential elections in May 2017, followed by the German federal elections in September. But proposals should be put on the table and debated in both countries before that. In particular, should the British people decide to remain in the EU, Britain would likely still be rather status quo minded. In this case, France and Germany should drive deeper integration for the Eurozone, if need be through separate treaty arrangements. Should a Brexit take place, France and Germany need to act against its centrifugal impact by deepening their European cooperation and inviting others to join.

It is unrealistic to expect that France and Germany can resolve all of the EU’s problems on their own, but it is obvious that their lack of solidarity and common thinking is pulling the carpet from under the feet of the EU at a time of great tension and challenges.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Head, ECFR Berlin
Senior Policy Fellow
ECFR Alumni · Head, ECFR Paris
Senior Policy Fellow

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