Domestic policy strife in both countries affects the development of the EU
The most important recent event that should serve as the context for considering German and French foreign policy—through the prisms of domestic policy and the EU—is undoubtedly the Brexit referendum in 2016. As we all know, this resulted in the British voters’ decision to leave the EU.
Why is Brexit so important? Even though the EU was created in order to stamp out European Machtpolitik, there is no getting around the fact that the policy of force is still present inside the Union. Ever since the European Coal and Steel Community was established in 1952, France has aspired to a leading position in Europe through Euro-organisations. Germany, on the other hand, has sought to tie itself better to Europe and thereby rehabilitate itself in the eyes of the continent. The Suez Crisis of 1956 made it clear to France that old-fashioned imperialist global policy no longer worked, and the only possibility to make oneself seen and heard in the world was to do so through European integration. The Franco-German axis was formed in the European Economic Community, which in 1993 would become the European Union.
In 1973, the EEC was joined—and Franco-German dominance interrupted—by the UK, which had no desire to play by Germany’s and France’s rules. Everyone probably remembers how Margaret Thatcher, the UK’s prime minister from 1979 to 1990, clashed with Brussels. The end of the Cold War and German reunification brought about great changes—and old fears resurfaced again. Both Thatcher and the then French president, François Mitterrand, opposed German reunification. Germany had to connect itself to Europe even more closely, while the ties binding the UK to the EU remained loose even after the 1993 Maastricht Treaty (the internal market functioned, of course).
It could be claimed, with some qualifications, that the reunification of Germany was counterbalanced by the UK and France. In addition, Germany had to offer significant aid to its eastern regions and had historical reason to avoid dominating Europe. The change came with the 2008 global economic and eurozone crisis, when Germany had to step out of the shadows to save the eurozone. On top of this, this decade has been marked by the migration crisis, which also tested the EU’s strength due to Germany’s action (or lack of it). Since the UK was not part of the eurozone and was separated from Continental Europe by the sea, it was not as heavily affected by the economic and migration crisis. Perhaps this is why UK supporters of Brexit primarily stressed the issue of EU migration—mainly involving people from Central and Eastern Europe.
Perhaps Germany could not do it alone, either. The Franco-German axis, which should have worked, failed—mainly because of France. President François Hollande (2012–17) was simply too weak and focused on internal matters, and was neither capable of leading nor willing to lead the European Union. It was no surprise that Hollande was the first president of modern France not to run for a second term. His support was simply too low.
Because of the migration crisis and terrorist attacks on France, there was a risk of extremist parties coming to power (the word “extremists” has lost its initial meaning, but let us stick to the classical political spectrum for now). Marine Le Pen’s Front national was particularly popular. In this light, the rise of Emmanuel Macron and his movement En Marche!, which won him the French presidency, can be considered a minor miracle. En Marche! achieved a majority in parliament (together with its partners having 350 out of 577 seats). It is worth mentioning here that this movement did not even exist during the 2012 elections. Given the rigidity of Western Europe’s political system, this was practically an earthquake, which raises the question of what is considered an extremist party and what is not. Given that Italy currently has an entirely populist coalition, it is still a miracle.
Macron won, and awaited the results of the German elections. Paradoxically, while in any other EU member state you have to wait for your own national elections to be over before making any changes to the country’s EU policy, on the Franco-German axis you need to wait for the results of multiple elections (French presidential and parliamentary, and German Bundestag) and hope that bilateral democracy and the chemistry between the two heads of state/government works.
Like France, Germany underwent political changes. The Bundestag elections in the autumn of 2017 saw the AfD (Alternative für Deutschland), representing an end of the political spectrum not seen since the end of the Second World War, gain seats. Angela Merkel was elected Chancellor for the fourth time, but without the expected majority—a coalition had to be formed with the Social Democrats, who initially gave up on negotiations to form a government, which means there will be no great changes in German politics.
The negotiations lasted months. The eventual coalition agreement stresses the need to strengthen the eurozone and, in the light of Brexit, Germany is willing to contribute more to the EU budget than before. One thing Germany does not want to do, however, is meet NATO’s recommendation to spend 2% of GDP on defence.
At the same time Germany is not against EU defence cooperation. The Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) agreement has been signed, yet it is questionable whether this will replace NATO, as PESCO is mostly meant for EU military cooperation outside the EU, not the defence of the Union’s own territory. In addition to Brexit, the shadow of US president Donald Trump hangs over everything, reminding NATO members to raise their defence expenditure to 2% of GDP. Trump has gone even further—at a meeting with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in mid-May, he hinted that the recommended level should be actually 4%. How that will fit with the German coalition agreement is probably the million-dollar question.
The opinion of the US is paramount in forming German and French policies, as Trump is much better disposed towards Macron than he is towards Merkel. While Macron went to the White House with all the possible pomp and circumstance of a state visit, Merkel only went for a working visit. It seems Trump has found Henry Kissinger’s coveted “phone number to call Europe”, and it is Macron’s. After all, it was to Macron that Trump revealed his intention to withdraw the US from the Iran nuclear deal. Whether or not this is the end of the transatlantic connection, as Germany’s former foreign minister Joschka Fischer sadly claimed to Der Spiegel, is a different matter, yet it is clear that the relationship with the US is no longer the same. At the same time, it is worth mentioning that the allies recovered from the rift caused by the war in Iraq, and managed to find common ground on various matters before Trump was elected.
Sources have also hinted that Trump does not understand the EU’s competence in the area of foreign trade and tries to communicate with France and Germany bilaterally. A trade war with the EU is a very serious prospect. The recently concluded G7 summit only deepened the impression of a trade war.
The positions and attitudes of the players have changed. While in the past Germany had to wait for Hollande’s France, the current situation has turned this on its head: Macron, wishing to move on quickly with the European project, is waiting for Germany to catch up. And the latest developments are pointing to the possibility that Germany’s hard-won coalition may collapse and the European project will have to wait again.
“Europe has always been able to manage decisions each time at the last minute in the worst of crises,” said Macron in mid-May. “But since the end of the crisis, it shows that it can no longer launch itself again into ambitious projects. That’s what I wish for us to do starting from this summer. That is the meaning of the risk taken by France to make strong proposals … last autumn. This is what I expect from Germany and that’s what I expect from our partners.”
Macron’s suggestions included creating a post of eurozone minister of finance, and establishing a European Monetary Fund (read: an even more centralised eurozone) and a joint budget for the eurozone. Germany’s finance minister, Olaf Scholz, has said that Germany does not agree with all these suggestions. At the same time, some changes are probably to be expected, since Germany actually also wants a more closely connected eurozone. The main issue seems to be what form this should take.
A more uniform Europe would also be more effective in its policy towards Russia. However, there are some “buts”. The first is naturally the American withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, which may force France and Germany—parties to the deal—to form a closer collaboration with Russia or China to preserve the agreement. We should view Merkel’s meeting with Putin in Sochi, and Macron’s visit to the St Petersburg International Economic Forum, in this light.
The Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project is a perfect example of how national and European interests do not coincide. Germany has nearly always likened European interests to its national ones, yet there is a controversy here. Even though Germany calls Nord Stream 2 a simple economic matter, the project violates the principles of the European Energy Union, according to which EU energy policy must serve the interests of all member states. Given Russia’s previous actions in the field of energy policy, it is incomprehensible how Nord Stream 2 can be viewed as a simple economic matter.
In light of Germany’s geographical and geopolitical position, it is understandable why Berlin focuses on Russia. France, on the other hand, has historical reasons to communicate closely with Africa. Given the potential number of immigrants and Africa’s growing population, the continent naturally won’t be ignored in Berlin either.
Let us return to Brexit. It is unclear whether the continent will be dominated by the Franco-German axis, or by either one of these countries, creating a possible rivalry. Another question is whether some other member state might be coveting the position of counterbalance to Paris and Berlin previously held by the UK. Italy? Given the difficulties and programme of Italy’s governing coalition, it seems likely Italy will mainly cause headaches in Brussels, and won’t be a counterbalance. Macron seems to be correct in his statement that, if the EU is not sufficiently modernised, its credibility in the eyes of its citizens will fall even lower, opening the way to populists.
This article was first published in the Estonian magazine Maailma Vaade. It is published here with minor alterations.