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Rebooting Franco-German cooperation

Franco-German relations / COMMENTARY
Sophie Pornschlegel

Date: 13/01/2020
The relationship between France and Germany has cooled in the past few years, which has also affected their common leadership in the EU. If the Franco-German tandem is to be saved, Paris should keep its more abrasive tendencies in check while Berlin needs to show real engagement in the bloc’s future.

The alliance between France and Germany has significantly deteriorated in 2019, with little to no hope for improvement in 2020. They have no one to blame but themselves: Germany has shown a lack of ambition and vision in European policy, while Macron made tactical errors with his disruptive style. To ensure that the Franco-German tensions do not become even more entrenched and lead to a continued stalemate in the EU in the coming years, both countries should let go of their mutual suspicion and turn over a new leaf. 

A deteriorating relationship since 2017 

The Franco-German mésentente started in 2017. Newly elected French President Macron opted for a new European strategy: he made efforts to comprehensively reform the French economy while seeking Germany’s cooperation on eurozone reforms. Berlin, however, did not respond positively to any of the proposals set out in Macron’s Sorbonne speech. Instead of agreeing to far-reaching reforms, Germany only allowed cosmetic changes, a far cry from the Elysée’s ambitious plans for the EU.
Germany’s lukewarm reaction was due to two factors: inconvenient timing and a lack of a clear EU strategy. Firstly, no one expected that it would take over five months to form a new German federal government – and no one expected the grand coalition to be so weak, torn between two coalition partners with very distinct sets of visions for Europe. Secondly, the country had no strategic vision of what it wanted to achieve in Europe, despite a first chapter in the coalition agreement entitled “A new start for Europe”. Even ideas floated within the German government, such as the unemployment reinsurance scheme proposed by Finance Minister Olaf Scholz in the summer of 2018, were never seriously implemented.  

The lesson was not lost on the Elysée, and so Macron decided to switch strategy. Tired of waiting for an unresponsive German partner, he started to act alone in European affairs. This new approach has led to further erosion of the relationship, mostly due to Germany appreciating neither Macron’s style nor his tactical errors. Not one French decision taken in Brussels in the past year seemed to have been in line with the German position: Macron’s choice for Ursula von der Leyen as new the Commission President; support for Kristalina Georgieva for the IMF presidency; a relatively short extension of Article 50 in the Brexit talks; the rapprochement with Russia; the veto against US trade talks; and above all, the vocal ‘No’ to the opening of accession talks with North Macedonia and Albania.  

By calling NATO ‘brain dead’, Macron gave the coup de grâce. Political circles in Berlin were thoroughly annoyed. Not only was this a direct affront to the US but, perhaps, also part of a strategy to replace Germany as the de facto leader of the EU. Germany clearly started to feel threatened by French activism in European affairs, especially regarding defence and security matters. 

Breaking the stalemate: Less style, more policy  

The repeated disagreements between both countries have led many to believe that only elections in 2021 (i.e. Germany) and 2022 (i.e. France) – and thus new leaders – will eventually be able to rekindle the alliance. However, this is a risky assumption: the next French President might hail from the far-right. And the two nations cannot allow themselves to put European affairs “on hold”. Strong Franco-German leadership is required if Europe is to make progress in crucial portfolios over the coming years.  

However, for this to happen, the differences in the personal relationship between Merkel and Macron will have to be set aside. Merkel does not seem to appreciate the Jupiterian style of the French President. His position as a (relatively) new, disruptive and ambitious president is fundamentally opposed to the Chancellor’s long experience in politics as well as her moderate, consensus-oriented and pragmatic style. Macron’s public provocations were mostly read as unrealistic folie des grandeurs in Germany, while Merkel’s weak position within her government and the difficult relationship between the two coalition partners have led Macron to think that he must wait for a new, more stable government to get ‘back into business’ with Berlin. 

However, the EU cannot wait for the two leaders to get along. Even though France and Germany are not the sole kingmakers in Brussels, the absence of a good working relationship between Berlin and Paris has a particularly negative impact on the EU’s ability to move forward. The successful implementation of von der Leyen’s rather ambitious programme will, to a large degree, depend on France and Germany’s ability to work closely together in the European Council – and for this to happen, both will have to make concessions and compromises.  

Rather than focusing on Macron’s abrasive style, Germany should come up with serious proposals of its own, for instance on eurozone reform, an EU industrial policy or on a more social Europe. Or why not offer concrete proposals in foreign, security and defence policy, an area of particular importance to France? At the same time, France should be more careful about how it frames its political choices and positions. Provocative interviews might not go down well with Germany, nor will it make restarting the dialogue, which is also in France’s interest, any easier. 

France and Germany should not forget that they do have common objectives. Both the German Defence Minister, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, and Macron want to strengthen European security; both countries agree that the EU’s industrial policy needs a revamp if Europe is to stay competitive at the global level; and both countries concede that Europe needs a strong digital agenda. Norbert Röttgen, a German MP and President of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the German Bundestag, made some important suggestions to rekindle the relationship, such as working on a joint 5G network or initiating a binational government bond for innovation. And there are more policy areas in which the Paris-Berlin tandem could play a constructive role, such as the relaunch of a social business initiative, the strengthening of a common position on the rule of law or support for bigger investments in mobility, education and culture.  

There will be opportunities in the coming months and years to rekindle the relationship: The next EU budget is the issue where Berlin and Paris should strive for close cooperation to ensure constructive negotiations and keep the schedule on track, especially as the differences to overcome between the member states are still substantial. The German government could also wisely use the German Council Presidency in the second half of 2020 to work closely with Paris, while the French government does the same during their Council Presidency in early 2022. Instead of waiting for elections, both governments should put their heads together and work out what is feasible – for the sake of the EU’s future.

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