Over the past two years, French President Emmanuel Macron has put major strategic issues of our time at the heart of the European debate. We should be grateful to him for this – Europe cannot simply carry on as before when the situation in the world is changing so radically. We need new answers to new questions.
More and more citizens feel that the era that followed the cold war is coming to an end; that something new is beginning. Populists throughout Europe are reacting to this uncertainty by isolating themselves from the outside world. It is on this terrain that nationalism grows – a phenomenon unpatriotic by its very nature because it fails to face up to the problems before us. But, like every epochal change, this new era comes with opportunities as well as dangers. Understanding and seizing these opportunities, and doing so with courage, self-confidence, and well-founded pride in the achievements of the past: this is the mindset for Europe to enter the competition between models and systems now on the rise internationally.
What projects can Berlin and Paris pursue together? Where can – and must – we find European solutions to common challenges? And how can we ensure this succeeds?
In a time of emerging great power competition, it is becoming increasingly important for Europe to consolidate the European Union and finally become capable of action in foreign policy. Europe must do its homework and strengthen itself from within, in order to be able to assert itself globally. This means, first of all, that we must strengthen the euro. The closer we coordinate the financial and economic policies of the euro states, the more stable the common currency will be. There can only be a strong and stable currency, which also plays a global role, if all monetary union members behave responsibly and commit themselves to solidarity.
Europe will only be able to face competition with China as a political community in which everyone stands up for each other
But a strong Europe also has to coordinate its foreign policy better. In a world of growing power politics, the main European powers have to coordinate and interlink more closely – and place their resources more at the service of a common European foreign and security policy. The E3 is the right format for this: France, Britain, and Germany as the vanguard of a common foreign and security policy, coordinated with the institutions in Brussels, and always open to all as “E3 plus”.
Making Europe more capable of action also means holding it together. Ever since Europe reunified in peace and freedom, this cohesion has been both a core interest and a special responsibility for Germany. An initiative to prevent east and west drifting apart should involve Poland, a key player in central Europe, and France.
The rise of China – which is not only a partner, but above all a competitor and systemic rival – will force Europe to cooperate. China threatens to put Europe on the back foot with its dizzying economic power, its technological ambitions, and growing geopolitical aspirations. In order to protect its sovereignty and remain internationally competitive, Europe has to find a common response. A China strategy for the EU27 is overdue despite being achievable; it has always failed so far because of an unwillingness to better coordinate and to put joint interests first. President Macron showed a way to overcome this block by inviting the German Chancellor and the President of the European Commission to a meeting with the Chinese President in Paris. Dealing with China should, as a matter of course, become a Franco-German task. Here again it would be a good idea to bring in Poland and thus break up the 17+1 cooperation format with China.
Europe has to face this competition with China, but it will only be able to do so as a political community in which everyone stands up for each other, as an economic and technological region that is willing and able to assert itself in the new digital era. The answer to the 5G – and soon 6G – question can therefore only be the following: We do this together, on a European scale, but as a Franco-German tandem at the least, so that others can follow suit.
Additionally, with regard to the geographical south, there is much more common ground between Germany and France than sometimes appears. The migration issues of recent years clearly demonstrated to Berlin the urgency of regional stabilisation in the Middle East and north Africa as far as the Sahel. The stabilisation of Iraq and the continuation of the political process in Libya are central to both states. At the same time Germany recognises that it has to become more involved in the Sahel if the region is not to become a new reservoir for Islamist terrorism. This engagement has to be comprehensive and go beyond a purely military presence, defining and pursuing economic, diplomatic, and humanitarian goals.
If we Europeans want to defend our interests, we have to become more capable of action in the field of security policy. Not against the United States, which is indispensable for a secure Europe, but as a European pillar within NATO. Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) is deliberately long-term and broad-based, and thus slow in nature. Why do individual countries not simply start – for example – by conducting joint military exercises? This would strengthen cohesion and align command structures. Here, too, Germany and France could make the difference.
Europe is not a museum. In the twenty-first century it retains enormous potential. The foundations of the liberal order are solid despite all the challenges, and Europe’s economic performance and its scientific and technological assets are immense. What is lacking is the political will to bring all this together into a strategy. If Paris and Berlin join forces more closely, if they develop more common ground on geopolitics and climate protection especially, then Europe can remain a model of success in light of increasingly tough global competition. It can become a power that shapes the future.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.