French-German disputes are tearing the EU apart

Ulrike Gu?rot warns that there is no vision for Europe without the leadership tandem

There have already been many hot summits over the history of the European Union, but this one has good chances to enter into the history book as a watershed summit.

The fact that the European Council President Nicolas Sarkozy, European Commission President José Manuel Barroso and UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown met without German Chancellor Angela Merkel is a slap in the face for Germany. The Franco-German engine is out of synch, as France and Germany engage in a level of competition that has never been witnessed before, with Sarkozy promoting himself as the ‘must-go’ person in Europe.

Sarkozy’s imperial style of running the EU has been upsetting Germany since his election. His attitude to launch projects without previous consultations is an unwelcome change of style in French-European policy. From the Independent Reflection Group to the Mediterranean Union, France has been busy announcing ideas without asking for other opinions. This clash is thus not the first one. When France pushed for the Mediterranean Union in March Merkel already needed to pull the emergency frame because the details of these proposals did not suit Germany at all. Back then Merkel kept silent. After all, Germany did not want to stay in the way of a successful French EU Presidency. Now, however, this patience is about to run out.

The energy that France has brought to the presidency is impressive. From a modest agenda without any special highlights – a little CAP-health-check, a pact for migration, progress on Europe’s energy and climate policy and some ideas for the European Security and Defence Policy (ESDP) – Sarkozy turned out to be a highly engaged trouble shooter when three crises emerged at the same time: the Irish ‘no’ and the deadlock of the Lisbon Treaty ratification process, the war in Georgia and the financial crisis.

With regard to the content, there is not much to add apart from complimenting the French presidency for its quick and tough reactions: Sarlozy kept the EU together on Russia although the member states are largely split when it comes to designing a common diplomatic strategy and he pulled together the G-20 to face the world’s biggest financial and economic crisis since 1929.

Luckily, the EU had a big country in the presidential seat; many smaller countries would have been overburdened. However, while Sarkozy was acting without hesitation, Germany became reluctant and was pushed into the seat of an observer. This in itself is not a good sign for the Franco-German tandem and may have negative repercussions for the EU at large considering the country’s powerful role within the EU.

Sarkozy probably overlooked this fact while he was busy fixing Europe. Giving away ownership is not one of his strengths. Germany is reacting by withdrawing from the European mainstream. Over the past weeks, it has developed a ‘go-it-alone’ rhetoric with a ‘national spin’ that sounds more ‘strict’ than usual. As a result, the European architecture is crumbling and cracking.

At least on three major policy areas, there is no common European position that France and Germany, in the classical tradition of the engine, would propose to the other members:

First, energy policy and a common, integrated European gas market. Overcoming dependency on Russian gas and resisting the way in which Gazprom mixes up the most strategic and sensitive European energy industries is probably one of the most urgent goals in current foreign policy. However, France and Germany, as most of the other EU countries, defend their existing energy deals. In addition, France promotes nuclear energy and pressures Germany to do the same despite that fact that it has committed to abolishing nuclear power plants. Instead, Germany wants to promote the new Carbon Capture Technique for which it finds little support from others. Even worse, when it comes to energy policy, Germany returns to its favourite historical pattern of making deals with Russia behind the backs of ‘in-between’ countries such as Poland and the Baltics. The country clearly aims at a strategic partnership with Russia and thus refuses to stand up against Russia within the EU arena. One glance at history is sufficient to understand which tensions may stem from this.

Second, France and Germany are engaged in a ‘dialogue of the deaf’ with respect to the need of economic governance. This dispute is as old as the creation of the Euro. The fundamental misunderstanding is that when France evokes economic governance, Germany sees this as a threat to the independence of the ECB. As soon as Sarkozy asked for the common economic regulation of Europe to overcome the financial crisis, -Germany’s press was full of hostile comments condemning regulation and praising the free market economy. This is at odds with reactions in the US and the UK, where the governments seem more willing to admit to the causes of the crisis. As a consequence, Germany is now reluctant to contribute to the European financial aid package that the French presidency has prepared. This resembles pulling away the main pillar from a bridge.

Thirdly, the French attempt to push ESDP got stuck in nitty-gritty disputes about industrial defence cooperation. Most Germans are right to complain about the fact that France always needs to win when it comes to industrial deals. The traditional French inferiority complex with respect to the German industries causes the country to seek deals which are harmful to the German economy. Patience here is also vanishing at the expense of European progress on issues surrounding military capabilities and defense.

All three policy areas put together show that the dynamics of the Franco-German engine are shifting towards more and more competitive behaviour, which negatively affects the EU as a whole. The problem is not the disputes as such. After all, it is sane and healthy when France and Germany argue over European policy issues. In the past, it was this process which helped finding the compromise that was then accepted by many other EU countries and formed the basis for an integrated and vigorous policy. The Euro is the best example of a terrible Franco-German dispute giving birth to a wonderful European project.

No, it’s not the disputes per se which are of any significance. It is the fact that beyond them there is no Franco-German project at the horizon which could be turned into a European common goal for the decade to come. There is no vision for Europe if it is not backed by France and Germany. If this leadership tandem falls apart, the future of the EU would be at stake. This is what is worrying. The next summit is thus going to be hot – and it is going to be decisive for the immediate future of the EU!

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


ECFR Alumni · Former Senior Policy Fellow

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