France and Germany: Entering a New European Era?

Translated from German by Annika Schall

During the last few months we witnessed intense and, at times, fierce electoral campaigning in our neighboring country France. This campaigning dominated the discussion in the media and public with a constant flow of articles, comments, polls, and status reports.

Campaigns are intense and have their quirks. French campaigns are no exception and foreigners not only find the candidates surprising and strange but also policy debates whether they deal with employment, purchasing power, welfare, taxes, the budget, education, immigration or internal security. What is important to note is that Europe only became an issue and a scapegoat in the final stages of the campaigns despite the fact that France has been severely affected by the European economic crisis.

A German Neurosis?

It is indisputable that France suffers from a reform backlog much more than many of its partners. Nicolas Sarkozy addressed this only partially during the last five years as president.

The French are worried and for this reason there was not a single day on which French commentators and politicians did not refer to the “role model” or “example” of Germany. Comparative figures and studies were mentioned that explained the loss of France’s economic competitiveness due to high wages, lack of export capability and too much government spending.

A recent study compares the industrial development of France with that of Germany, and the results are embarrassing for the French. This comparison is highly controversial. The French are well aware that Germany is far better off in many areas and that their own country is in trouble. However, the French do not like to be constantly told that Germany is their “role model”. Sarkozy, who made constant references to Germany in a TV show, had to realize that.

The admiration mixed with envy of Germany, or the “German neurosis”, is not good for the self-confidence of Germany’s neighbors. Under the pressure of an electoral campaign, strong emotional reactions are evoked all too easily. Anti-German clichés were used in the early stage of the electoral campaign, mainly initiated by the left-wing of the French Socialist Party. There was talk of “nationalism”, “egoism”, and even of “capitulation”, of “subjection” and of “1940 without the Wehrmacht”.

Unfortunately, such tendencies undermine serious efforts to use comparisons to examine French weaknesses and strengths. They also undermine efforts to educate the French about how Germany and other countries have tried to improve in these areas. Furthermore, it is unfortunate that the French are not told how long it took their German neighbor to catch up on the reform backlogs regarding pensions, health insurance and employment, how difficult it was to implement these plans starting from the middle of the last decade, and how these backlogs piled up because of the great efforts made for the German reunification. It is important that the French learn about these topics because after the election they have to sit down and talk to the Germans and other Europeans who have fundamentally different systems and attitudes.

This is even more important because the French Socialists and their candidate Francois Hollande had announced that they would not ratify the most important European decisions to strengthen budget discipline, if the word “growth” would not be added to the word “discipline”. The question arises whether this was simply a campaign slogan or a serious declaration. People acquainted with German-French relations might remember Lionel Jospin, who was heading in the same direction before he took over as prime minister in 1997. The key difference is that the present situation is influenced far more by the financial and economic crises and the pressure that Hollande will face will be extraordinary.

The German-French Tandem

Europe is the main point on the German-French agenda for talks after the election. This agenda has been more closely defined after the first meeting of the French President and the German Chancellor on May 7th. The tough work will only start in summer when a new French government assumes office after the parliamentary elections.

Both the French and the Germans want to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Élysée treaty together, with a joint session of the French Assemblée Nationale and the German Bundestag in Berlin in January 2013. This occasion will give both sides an opportunity to come up with new initiatives. Celebrations are not enough though, they have to be preceded by an objective and unemotional analysis of the German-French relationship. Of late, the special relationship has frayed and there have been differences over the economic crisis. Some observers term it a midlife crisis and both sides need to think about how they can work together to tackle the European problem. They also need to think about how to consolidate and deepen the European integration and which bilateral agreements to agree upon to further this purpose.

This is a time when Europe is in crisis. Crisis management has been poor in the last few months and little progress has been made on key issues. It takes too much time to overcome differences and Europe is still looking for a reference point for shaping its future.

Other European countries will look to the French and the Germans. The European partners will never be happy with how France and Germany are working in tandem with each other. If the French and the Germans agree with each other, their partners like to speak about a German-French “diktat”; if they disagree with each other, their partners appeal to the shared historic European responsibility.

During recent crises, even the German-French tandem needed more time to get started than usual. The “European Reflex” of both countries, strong in earlier times, seems to have disappeared.

France went to the polls and Europe is shaking

Despite the underlying mistrust, reason succeeded. France and Germany have suffered from much ignorance of the neighbor and from too many misunderstandings. It is understandable because they have notably different political systems. On the one hand, France has a centralized presidential government, while, on the other hand, Germany is a parliamentary democracy embedded in a federal structure. The neighbors also have very different economic systems. France is an economy with the strongest influence of the state in Europe, while Germany is a liberal market economy with co-determination as its key feature.

Hence both have different opinions on the structural characteristics of European integration and on which policies to pursue. There has been little rapprochement between the two over the last years, but there is a willingness to compromise and no side has to bite the bullet alone.

It is remarkable that party affiliation has not played an important role in French-German negotiations. What has been more important is that the President and the Chancellor take time to get to know and understand each other and learn to respect each others’ boundaries. This time there will be no grace period, hence no time for Chancellor Merkel and President Hollande to get to know each other.

The European Union is in the midst of discussions on highly sensitive issues that relate to the progression of the single European market, budgetary policy, fiscal policy, immigration policy, foreign policy and security policy.

These are areas in which member states, most of all France and Germany, find it hard to transfer sovereignty to ‘Brussels’ and to jointly implement its strategies. These are areas in which the member states want to have the final say because ultimately they are held accountable by their national voters and their parliaments. At the same time, these are areas where Europe will have to work together in pursuit of its common interests if it is to have a future.

All this cooperation is called for at a time of a major financial and economic crisis. The Economist considers France to be the country at the highest risk and is likely to become the epicenter of a new euro crisis. If France keeps flagging and protesting against the agreed upon joint European direction, the EU and the euro zone will suffer severe consequences.

Moving Forward

France and Germany need a common understanding of the European agenda lying ahead and a will to jointly act on it at a time characterized by insecurity and speculation. The European Union has to take the initiative and move forward. The question arises what precisely we have to do to preserve the success story of European integration in a globalized world.

First, it is necessary to restore financial credibility through responsible budgets. Long term discipline and reduction of excessive state debt have to be balanced with the quest for growth and creation of employment.

Extending and attaining the potential of the European single market could be the most important pillars for a European recovery, and could increase growth and employment. The services of general interest alone, currently stuck in a European gray area, could create a European boom in energy, environmental technology and public transport.

Europe needs to work together on its foreign and security policy. The national approach weakens its natural ambitions too much. Only by proceeding jointly will Europe realize its interests globally. Otherwise it risks “strategic declassification” as Alain Juppé recently pointed out. It is time, therefore, to work on and adopt a road map for the next three years.

With such a renouveau as a backup, the strengthening of Europe’s lead could be started without any treaty changes, if possible. These are issues where the Germans and the French have set different priorities, have different opinions, and where they build upon different traditions and approaches. These are issues on which the French have historically taken the lead and the Germans now have a hard time accepting that. The French still insist on this claim even if they are increasingly aware that it is unlikely to remain tenable.

For a long time, Germans have been told that because of their past it would be best for them to keep a low profile. After the German re-unification, the same friends said that the time for excuses was over and that Germans had to learn leadership, a field in which they were considered lacking political sensitivity and strength.

The Germans and the French should remember how discreetly Helmut Kohl exercised European leadership. It is equally important to include the Polish neighbors into the equation. France, Germany and Poland form the natural backbone of the European Union, unlike any other group of countries. Also, smaller countries such as the Benelux countries should be involved more and the same is true for traditional partners like Italy and Spain, especially since these two are currently restoring their credibility.

Mario Monti could be an especially useful mediator when looking for a common European course. No one would suspect that he is too close to either Paris or Berlin. As competition commissioner in Brussels, he built a reputation for independence and did not make himself very popular in either France or Germany. At the same time though, he has gained immense respect in both countries for achieving a great deal in Italy within a brief span of time.

Utopia, Dream or “Unreal reverie”?

The German-French agenda is not just a European agenda. It is appropriate that the Élysée Treaty, signed between Germany and France in 1963, is being reviewed after 50 years. It is a matter of fact that this treaty has never been able to develop its full potential. Both countries have interpreted it differently and used it for different purposes.

There is still a lack of knowledge and understanding of the neighbor, and underlying mistrust. This can only be overcome by systematically informing and listening to each other before decisions are made. Years ago, the French discreetly informed the Germans about the planned abolition of compulsory military service and the resumption of nuclear testing. Such information needs to be exchanged more often and the Germans should have talked to their neighbors before announcing their energy policy turnaround.

The French and the Germans need to take stock of what we have and have not achieved together regarding culture and education. Maybe we have let things slide for too long – for example with regard to language, but that is not the only thing. I am thinking of collaboration in areas close to the border where too little progress has been made. In this particular case, joint approaches and institutions could serve as a European test case that could be useful for areas such as employment or regional development. In fact, instead of new institutions, which are not taking us anywhere, we urgently need a new impulse and useful programs with visible effects.

I am referring to the two parliaments that are struggling with the European difficulties and with engaging their citizens. The French are complaining that when it comes to the issue of deploying the German Armed Forces abroad, there are more constraints than commitments, and that on all issues the German Bundestag is constantly involved. In this regard, I ask myself why are the French not going to the German Bundestag and building mutual trust. Is it because the Assemblée Nationale does not have a remotely comparable influence?

The Germans and the French were and continue to be difficult neighbors for each other, but for the last few decades they have managed to reconcile their differences despite the fact that they are supposed to be hereditary enemies. They have managed to become partners and to create the great success story of Europe. Now they share the responsibility of stabilizing Europe, putting it on a new path of progress and thereby ending the crisis of trust where politicians have lost credibility with their citizens for their politics and for handling the economy.

*[This is a revised and expanded version of the article “Auf dem Tandem nach Europa“ that was originally published by Das Parlament on April 16.]

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy

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