A complicated relationship

Following France?s return to NATO military command this week, relations between Paris and Berlin remain complex

ECFR Alumni · Former Senior Policy Fellow

Following the Franco-German
Minister Council meeting this week, expectations are high for a bold statement on
the common steps that France
and Germany
envisage taking at the G-20 meeting and the NATO Summit next month.

Franco-German
cooperation has been deficient  recently,
for many reasons. Among them, Sarkozy’s policy style ranks high. But the real
reasons are more profound: France
and Germany
have both lost enthusiasm for the European project. Domestic discussions about Europe in general have become ever more difficult; big
projects are invisible; the looming European Parliament elections threaten to be
a tough test for the governments in both countries; and last but not least, the
old style of Franco-German friendship and leadership within the EU is no longer
as attractive as it was a decade ago.

In both countries,
contacts and language skills are weakening. Radio France Internationale is even
shutting down its transmission from Berlin.
France and Germany are
literally no longer listening to each other. Sarkozy’s behaves as if he wants
to promote France as the ‘go-to-first’
country in Europe, which can only displease Germany. The Franco-German relationship
had already turned from a former engine to a train without carriages in the
run-up to the Iraq war; as Germany and France tried to exert leadership nobody
was following them.

Now, a competition is
beginning: a competition about which country is more protectionist, on about which
government is going to be the ‘chou-chou’ of Obama; about who has more
influence within NATO; and about who has the better relationship with Russia.
But competition hardly  stabilizes a loving
relationship.

Even so, France and Germany will have plenty to do in
the coming weeks. They will need to shape a broad discussion about what to do with
the Obama administration (and how). In particular, they will need to propose ideas
for a new European security architecture. And they will need to figure out and
push forward European solutions for the financial crisis.

In terms of security
and defense, Ms Merkel and Mr Sarkozy shared a platform at the Munich Security
Conference and  co-authored a piece in
the Süddeutsche Zeitung on Franco-German cooperation and European security. The
piece was the first written by a German Chancellor and a French President for
some time; the fact that they voiced issues together is a positive development.  In the article, they pledged to improve
NATO-EU relations, create a more solid ESDP within NATO and ensure more
responsible European engagement in international conflicts.

Even so, the common
discourse lacked vigour and sounded much like yesterday’s talk. Moreover, Germany missed the ‘Welcome to NATO’ headlines
yesterday and it is hard to get a sense of what Germany
thinks about France’s
return to the military structure of NATO. For 40 years, Germany, France
and the US have been in a kind
of ‘ménage à trois’, with Germany being the ‘go-between’ between the US
and France.
Germany, in the discourse of
the 1990s, wanted to build European security and defense within NATO; France
took the opposite view. From the Elysée Treaty in 1963 to the Eurocorps in 1992,
and during the period of the construction of ESDP until today, it was precisely
the ambivalence of these goals and the institutional structure in European
security and defense policy that made progress possible. In its own way, the
sometimes burlesque ‘ménage à trois’ remained
stable.

Now, France has shifted to the NATO camp, and Germany
should be happy. No more disputes about NATO vs. ESDP; no more seeing France
as a concubine. But is Germany
happy? It has long suspected France
of being anti-Atlanticist, but in reality Paris has
worked closely with the US,
especially on Iraq, but also
on Iran
and in many other missions. France
is also more engaged in international crisis management and has more respect
for what it does in the US
than Germany.

So is Germany happy that France is now openly seeking more
influence within NATO, as Sarkozy himself declared? Are there signals that France
will use its return to the military structure of NATO to strengthen the ESDP?
And, if so, is Germany
still committed to push for better European security and defense policy? To
pose these questions is to answer them. Germany
is arguably being excluded from a new amour
fou
between the US and France — perhaps to the detriment of Europe. As nice as it is to celebrate the 60th
Anniversary of NATO in a Franco-German setting, it feels as if more reference is
being made to the past than to the future. The real questions concern the new
European security architecture and whether it will be channeled institutionally
through NATO or the EU; whether the EU is willing and able to assume more
responsibility of its neighborhood; and the place Russia that will have in the
European security system. For all of this, NATO is a necessary but no longer sufficient
institution.

Interestingly, France’s
return to NATO comes at a time when the community is discussing intensively the
future of NATO. No, NATO is not obsolete, but it is too mono-dimensional to pursue
transatlantic relations in the future. In addition to returning to NATO,
Sarkozy should have suggested an EU-US treaty, as transatlantic relations are
much more comprehensive than NATO can possibly manage. This would have meant closing
a chapter from the past and opening a new one. Without this, it may be a
gesture worth quoting in future history books, but not much more.

France
and Germany
have also been busy working on common solutions for the financial crisis. But ‘busy’
does not mean necessarily ‘successfully’. Since October, a couple of European summits
have tried to produce European solutions and, as with any other policy issue,
Franco-German understanding would be required first.

In October 2008,
therefore, the input for the first European aid package came from Sarkozy and
Brown, with Merkel reluctantly jumping on it. Worse than focusing only on
either Peugeot or Opel is the fact that the financial crisis yet to trigger an
honest debate between France
and Germany
about whether the crisis could or should be used to overcome the dysfunctional
elements of the current management of the Eurozone.  Billions of Euros are being spent to save
industries, but no attention is being paid to the structural deficiencies of
the Euro-governance.

We can only hope that France and Germany begin discussing this
today. ‘Economic government’ is a taboo concept which does not go down  well in Germany. But whatever the wording, monetary
union is not enough and political integration of the Eurozone must go beyond
sheer coordination. Issuing Eurobonds could be one step towards fiscal
federalism, which is a debate that the EU needs. Offering a clear perspective
to all EU countries to join the Euro soon could be another. This approach could
also appease financial markets that are waiting for a robust European answer at
the G-20 summit in London.
France and Germany can answer this question, but
only if they bite the bullet in the weeks ahead.

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

Author

ECFR Alumni · Former Senior Policy Fellow

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