Little substance was to be found behind a façade of grand, symbolic proclamations at the 50-year signing of the Elysée Treaty in 2013, a celebration of cooperation between Berlin and Paris. Europe’s Franco-German core – once a driver of interminable war and conflict – had become little more than a totem of monotonous tradition and ritualised complacency. Yet while Berlin and Paris revelled in etiolated nostalgia, the flames of the euro crisis were engulfing the broader stage of European politics; at that moment of crisis it was clear that both France and Germany were unable to surmount their differences and produce more substantial policy.
From 2013 on, the political situation further deteriorated. Russia’s annexation of Crimea, terrorist attacks in both France and Germany, and the Brexit vote all in turn put mounting pressure on Europe’s core tandem to agree on shared positions and develop common policy. Promising advances were made (the Normandy format for diplomatic cooperation was a welcome development) but fundamental questions of security and prosperity largely remained outside the scope of Franco-German cooperation.
Fortunately, the year 2017 has seen new dynamics and fresh potential for Franco-German cooperation emerge, perhaps the inevitable consequence of ever-worsening political circumstances. Indeed, it is in some sense ironic that Berlin and Paris are discovering fruitful common ground for greater action and agreement at the same time as Donald Trump and Brexit, as surreal as they may seem, are becoming realities. Recall that when the Elysée Treaty was initially signed in 1963, the German parliament had added a preamble to the original document affirming the value of the transatlantic relationship and expressing a desire to further involve the United Kingdom in European integration. This gravely disappointed policymakers in Paris, who felt that broadening the scope of the Treaty in fact emptied it of any meaningful content. Now, those same partners, hastily tacked onto the Elysée Treaty by the Germans, pose a systemic, if not existential, threat to the European order.
Will this finally spur France and Germany into substantive action, inspire them to radically pursue an independent and powerful continental union? Visions of a robust, energetic Europe have long played a prominent and paramount role in French foreign policy ambitions, while Berlin has typically regarded the transatlantic pillar as an equally important crutch in global affairs. Yet recent developments have shown that Berlin is indeed willing to move positively in this direction, and that Franco-German cooperation appears to have more potential than ever.
It is clear to German policymakers that any calculus of coalitions and collaboration in the European Union will inevitably have to involve Paris. While Franco-German collaboration was until recently seen as too feeble to drive policy for the EU 28, the pressing issue now is not the whole EU, but rather to ‘save what can be saved’. France, in this context, is an indispensable partner for Germany, and thus Berlin’s attention and devotion has turned increasingly towards Paris, in the hope of finding like-minded Europeans at the Elysée in the future.
Indeed, the German political class’s enormous interest in the upcoming French presidential election exemplifies its growing desire to retain France as a partner and substantiate its long-standing relationship. Both Emmanuel Macron and François Fillon visited Berlin last month seeking to reaffirm their faith in the creative potential of the Franco-German axis in their own manner. Macron followed in the footsteps of Joschka Fischer and delivered a rousing speech at Humboldt University, assuring his audience that Franco-German cooperation and the future of Europe would be in good hands were he to be victorious in May. Fillon, meanwhile, was welcomed by Chancellor Angela Merkel and other conservative ministers from her ruling party as if he were already president.
Despite their different receptions and approaches, both candidates acknowledged that they were aware of Europe’s problems, and would tackle them through the framework of Franco-German collaboration. At the same time, neither shied away from constructively addressing the disagreements between Paris and Berlin, such as their approaches to Russia or to reform of the eurozone.
These visits, and the broader discourse they sparked, have produced the impression that France has found new vigour in the face of ominous threats both to itself and to the EU. This is welcome on the other side of the Rhine. Berlin needs a partner with powerful constructive potential; a partner that is not afraid to hold a mirror up to the German policymaking community.
Critics may well claim that this is wishful thinking, but Franco-German relations have unquestionably experienced a profound change in recent months. The tumultuous events taking place in the EU, the many perils endangering European security, and the unexpected rupture of the UK and the United States from the global order have sparked a sudden, but deeply embedded, reflex to save Europe and its institutional order. Paris and Berlin now need to take further, concrete steps in order to prove the sincerity and potential of their joint endeavour. Where exactly this will take place remains to be seen, but it is likely that foreign and security policy will prove the most fertile soil for deeper cooperation. Indeed, this could be a more rewarding basis for cooperation in the short to medium term than the future of Europe’s economic and social model.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.