How Merkel and Hollande stalled the EU’s engine

To qualify as an engine of integration, the two countries need to demonstrate their willingness to go it alone if need be. 

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It could have been a high point in Franco-German relations, a revisiting of historic precedence set on the same stage in November 1989. It could have been a signal for Europe at a time of great challenge and of great insecurity about how to “act European”. Angela Merkel and François Hollande’s appearance in front of the European Parliament last week could have sent a strong message in advance of another head of state meeting in the European Council. On the one hand this meeting will feature quarrels over solidarity among member states about how to deal with the inflow of refugees, and on the other hand British demands for less Europe will be on the table. In their speech at the European Parliament Merkel and Hollande could have pre-empted these quarrels by reinforcing their determination to bridge differences in the EU, and to build a closer union between France and Germany, if indeed they truly believe that Europe is at risk of falling apart.

Alas, no such unifying rescue measures were taken. 26 years since Francois Mitterrand and Helmut Kohl addressed the European Parliament in a joint appearance, the current German Chancellor and current President of the French Republic showed that they were unable to maintain the same level of commitment and determination as their predecessors. It was a rare occasion and opportunity, but no impactful signal was sent. Instead of one message being confidently presented, members of the House heard two somewhat duplicative speeches focusing on the challenges Europe is facing from the conflicts and wars in its neighbourhood (Hollande) and the migration flows resulting from them (Merkel). Both Hollande and Merkel called for Europe to respond together and to act jointly, but neither of them gave any concrete indication of what initiatives France and Germany might take, and how they would act together if and when European partners proved unwilling to move ahead in unison.

The message conveyed by both parties was nothing new, but the way it was delivered underlined the seriousness and urgency of the situation. Delivering a single speech instead of two would have been a smart idea of their political spin-doctors, clearly conveying unity and common purpose – but not even that had been considered. However, despite the tone of these speeches, recommendations for specific steps to be taken were missing. In the golden days of Franco-German relations, one and one added up to three, but last week’s joint speech has emphasized that this is no longer the case. The couple are talking, but the engine stutters.

This month 24 years ago, Mitterrand and Kohl demonstrated how momentum could be created by the Franco-German engine. Ahead of the Maastricht summit both leaders sent a letter to their peers announcing that France and Germany would upgrade the Franco-German brigade to a corps, inviting other countries to join, and suggesting that this decision should be understood as the first step towards a European army. They also proposed that the EU should absorb the Western European Union (WEU) as a pillar of its Common Security and Defence Policy. Part of the message was worded in treaty language so that it could be directly inserted into the provisions on a political union. By doing this it was made clear that the authors were not just adding ideas to an open debate, but rather setting an agenda for others to follow. The letter also called for a common foreign policy and listed the key areas to be covered by it. Unsurprisingly, the Mediterranean and the Middle East were among them.

These proposals shook the debate in Europe because they left little room for ambivalence. Member states were forced to position themselves on one side of the conversation or the other. Interestingly, the biggest news was placed in a postscript, in which Kohl and Mitterrand noted (in passing) their intention to establish the Eurocorps. Both leaders were fully aware of the hesitation among member states concerning deeper integration of foreign and security matters, so they strengthened their proposals by announcing that France and Germany would be taking this step regardless.

In comparison to Mitterand and Kohl, Hollande and Merkel do not stack up in the same way. While it’s true that the level of fragmentation in the EU is much higher now than it was in the early 1990s, and that EU member states are not at an intergovernmental conference negotiating treaty reform as Mitterand and Kohl were, it is clear that leading in the EU takes more than just appealing to governments to face the obvious problems. France and Germany need to put solid proposals on the table, which don’t just reflect their own preferences but are designed to reflect the European interest. Regarding the political dimension of economic and monetary union, numerous ideas have been launched in Paris and Berlin. Emmanuel Macron and Wolfgang Schäuble have developed quite detailed plans for deeper integration, and although these plans are not fully compatible with each other, they are not irreconcilable either. On security and defence, filing cabinets in both capitals hold numerous dossiers on how to deepen integration. Back in the days when justice and home affairs were a strictly intergovernmental pillar, both sides had already invested in ideas about common policies and community processes.

In short, the foundations of a coherent set of policies are there. Paris and Berlin need to stop calling for Europeans to act, but to take action themselves. They should put to paper the shape, powers and structure of “more Europe” and set a date for a new treaty. 2020 would make a lot of sense. If the British Tories' soul searching could hold up change, then change will never come. Obstacles of that size will always be met along the way. Hollande and Merkel also need to think about what their own “postscript” could be, and what they should come together on in order to work towards the Europe they'd like to see. To qualify as an engine of integration, the two countries need to demonstrate their willingness to go it alone if need be. If even just one of them could brush the dust off the concept of a “core Europe” they may find that it could provide a roadmap for the Franco-German couple’s plan B.

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

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