Audience question: Are France and Germany the engines of Europe?
13 May 2024 - 15:02
Bron: ©Clingendael

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Are France and Germany the engine of Europe?

In the run-up to the European Parliament elections, Clingendael experts answer questions from our online audience. In the third episode, Alexander Heydendael asks: Are France and Germany the engine of Europe? René Cuperus answers.


René, a good topical question, you indicate. What is your impression of that engine at the moment?

They have fared better than they do now. It is well known that there is no great chemistry between German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and French President Emmanuel Macron. This has a lot to do with the fact that Germany and France both have domestic concerns of their own. Germany is going through the so-called ‘Zeitenwende’ (turn of times). As a result of the war in Ukraine, Germany has become quite dislocated. Many post-war certainties taken for granted were affected. Russia fell away as an energy and industrial partner. Germany was also forced to sharply increase its defence budget. The ‘traffic light coalition’ (referring to party colours) of Social Democrats (SPD), Liberals (FDP) and Greens (Die Grünen) is not a strong unity in geopolitically turbulent times, and Scholz is not really rising above himself. France is also currently experiencing a lot of political turmoil, fragmentation and polarisation. Marine Le Pen is still waiting on the sidelines, and will do very well in the European elections. To have a mandate for far-reaching European policies in Brussels, things have to be stable nationally. This is not the case in both Germany and France, so the Franco-German engine is running at low speed.

Where do you currently see the lack of chemistry?

Macron gave a (new) speech at the Sorbonne University in Paris in late April. In it, he advocated building a strong geopolitical Europe to counterbalance China, Russia and the US. If we don't, Macron said a little too dramatically, ‘Europe can die'. Subsequently, you notice that there is not a strong reaction to this in Germany. Macron's geo-strategic course is not immediately embraced enthusiastically in Berlin. In Germany, it is also seen as a European campaign narrative from Macron.

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Something that also causes the Franco-German engine not always to run in sync is the fact that the countries have different state structures.

Yes, France is a strongly hierarchical country, in which the president has a lot of power and leeway, including to tell such big European stories. Germany, on the other hand, is a strong federal country. While Scholz is Chancellor, he does not have the omnipotence that the French president has. Scholz has to deal with his coalition and the German states also have a lot to say. Germany cannot speak with one strong voice as easily as France. 

What is the function that the Franco-German engine (aka axis) has in the European Union?

Part of the secret of that axis is that France represents, to a greater or lesser extent, the south of Europe and Germany represents the north. The idea then is: if France and Germany agree, then north and south are more or less reconciled. Only then is movement possible in Brussels. Often a country like the Netherlands can end up going along with the German proposal and countries like Spain or Italy find themselves in the French position. 

If you simplify the relationships somewhat, the grand ideals and stories come from France, while the money comes from Germany, where not coincidentally the European Central Bank is located. Germany is the economic powerhouse of Europe, while France forms more of the political and military-strategic part of the engine. For example, unlike Germany, France has a seat on the UN Security Council and possesses a nuclear arsenal, the Force de Frappe. So, part of Europe's deterrence against Putin's Russia lies in France.

To have a mandate for far-reaching European policies in Brussels, things have to be stable nationally. This is not the case in both Germany and France.

France and Germany have a long history of wars. How significant is it that these countries want to lead the European ‘project’ together? 

That is very telling. The Franco-German historic enmity is the source and foundation of European reconciliation. Often, the struggle revolved around the Alsace-Lorraine region, between France and Germany. Currently, it is once again part of France. This region also housed a large portion of the European coal and steel industry, which was strategically important. It is no coincidence that Strasbourg, the capital of Alsace, is the seat of the European Parliament (alongside Brussels). That city has been declared so sacred that, despite the monthly commute back and forth, people do not want to give it up. 

After World War II, the great reconciliation was initiated by then French president Charles de Gaulle and then German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer. They concluded the Élysée Treaty in 1963, which agreed on deep cooperation between the two countries. To this day, France and Germany still meet almost every year in a pretty little castle to discuss the future shape of Europe. And they do so with both governments together. That treaty also created large-scale exchanges of German and French students and scholars. 

The Franco-German engine also laid the foundation for the monetary integration of Europe. The German reunification after the fall of the Berlin Wall played a significant role in that. How did that story go?

That's correct. The peace offering Germany had to pay for its unification was to give up the strong D-Mark. The then French President Mitterrand even referred to that currency as the 'atomic bomb of Germany.' The Germans had to exchange that currency for the (weaker) euro. There was some resistance to reunification because there was fear that the balance in Europe would be disrupted, resulting in a Franco-German asymmetry due to a once again greatly empowered Germany. The axis would be thrown off balance. That didn't really happen, if only because the German Democratic Republic proved to be a heavy burden for Germany for a long time. But indeed, the euro is also a Franco-German compromise.

Sometimes you see a little too much power tilting towards the big countries, but sometimes big countries have frighteningly little say. 

Doesn't the German-French engine work too much in its own favour?

That's a complicated question. It's both true and untrue. There are subsidy flows that do end up disproportionately in French and German companies. And it's often heard that many Germans hold powerful positions within the European bureaucracy. It is no coincidence that the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, as a German and a member of the major party CDU, plays such a dominant role.

Sometimes you see a little too much power tilting towards the big countries (they tend to be spared when budget rules are violated), but sometimes big countries have frighteningly little say. For example, Germany has only one seat at the European Central Bank, despite being the largest contributor to the Union.  Now, if the EU were to expand to include the Western Balkan countries without reforms, the countries of former Yugoslavia would end up with seven commissioners in the European Commission. These would sit opposite one French and one German commissioner. So then the big countries would have disproportionately little power. So permanent vigilance is needed in the ratio of large to small countries. The support of France and Germany for the European project must not be undermined, just as small countries must be seen and respected in the EU. However, it can generally be stated that the European Union neutralizes the power of the large countries more, compared to the power politics of the past.

Perhaps there's a bit of sand in the gears, but does the Franco-German engine keep running? Or are other countries taking over the wheel?

Germany and France are essentially always the driving force of Europe, regardless of the situation. The question is more about how much fuel there is, who is behind the wheel, and whether it's going fast enough. It's important that small countries, as well as knowledge institutes like Clingendael, influence that engine block with good ideas and analyses. Additionally, it's crucial to consider the differences in Europe. But, one way or another, France and Germany form the dynamic pivot around which Europe will have to develop its geopolitical strength in a world adrift.

Read the earlier parts on our European Elections 2024 platform. Stay informed via our newsletter.