Last week’s decision by the governments of Germany and France to postpone their joint biannual Cabinet meeting sent waves of comments about the future of the bilateral partnership.
Some media in both countries even went as far as predicting the possible demise of French-German cooperation. Yet, at the same time, they largely ignored that President Emmanuel Macron and Chancellor Olaf Scholz will still meet this Wednesday, over a working lunch aimed precisely at dispelling misunderstandings between the two parties.
In the midst of the confusion and the perplexity that have followed the postponement of the Cabinet meeting, it would be futile to deny problems in today’s relations between Germany and France. Too many grievances have been aired recently between the two capitals to pretend that all is fine. But are we really witnessing the chronicle of a death foretold or is it more a partnership in need of profound revision?
For many observers, the piling up in the last months of diverging views between the two nations in so many areas—defense projects, the gas price ceiling, the sub-Mediterranean pipeline, state subsidies to enterprises, Chinese investments in Europe—has not only brought the cooperation between Berlin and Paris to a standstill, as illustrated by the postponed Cabinet meeting; it has also epitomized the vulnerability of a partnership that critics say has lost its efficiency and perhaps its purpose.
According to these same commentators, the belief in necessary and useful French-German cooperation should be questioned when a new balance of power is emerging inside an enlarged EU and at a time when Germany itself is experiencing major changes in the very foundations of its economy and foreign policy.
With a fundamentally transformed Europe comes the perception of a Franco-German partnership that is structurally flawed and increasingly outdated.
Naturally, official voices on both sides of the Rhine are contesting this interpretation. And some well-versed commentators on French-German politics are quick to underline that relations between Paris and Berlin have never been a smooth affair.
The coming into office of new governments alternatively in each capital has traditionally brought laborious periods of adjustment. Today, the so-called traffic light coalition in Germany is no exception and requires time to adapt.
More substantially, deep divergences in the two countries’ interests have been there from the start. In fact, they are at the heart of the Franco-German partnership and can even be considered its raison d’être. It is precisely because former French president Charles de Gaulle and then German chancellor Konrad Adenauer understood early on the depth of divergences in their national interests that they decided in 1963 to work on an enduring partnership.
From the opposition over the completion of the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy to the birth of the euro or the new voting rights that favored Germany, the European integration process has seen Paris and Berlin overcoming time and again their deep-rooted differences to shape bilateral compromises that could be endorsed by all European states.
If anything, the existential merit of the Franco-German partnership has been precisely to understand that the diverging interests between the two countries usually embodied the overall substance of the discussion at the European level.
Agreements between Berlin and Paris therefore paved the way to solutions acceptable to all European partners. No doubt this prominence has stirred complaints from union members but, when faced with a collapse of French-German collaboration, the same members were the first ones to call for fence-mending between the two countries.
This contribution of the Franco-German partnership to the EU’s progress still stands the test of time. Additionally, the enlarged EU has little to do with the reasons behind today’s grudges between Paris and Berlin.
If there is one major complaint addressed in Paris to the Scholz government, it is that of a selfish Germany displaying too little solidarity for its EU partners.
As for the criticisms addressed to France, they seem equally to blame French traditional eagerness to lead defense projects and distance Europe from U.S. leadership.
So, what is missing today in the collaboration between Berlin and Paris that can explain that feeling of under-delivery? Perhaps it is the more substantial and free-flowing conversation at all levels of state institutions to build a deeper understanding between the two sides.
Contacts at the highest political level are indispensable, but they are not enough to get messages through and have decisions implemented. More efficient working methods need to be applied with team leaders appointed on specific cooperation projects to keep them under constant review and deliver tangible results according to plans.
At the same time, France and Germany should pay more attention to their Central and Eastern European partners’ concerns and misgivings. For that purpose, the Weimar Triangle—a format between France, Germany, and Poland—could be more often used and eventually enlarged.
Accusations of “Franco-German imperialism” in some Eastern European capitals are exaggerated, but the misunderstanding they articulate must be heard.
In the end, it is a revival of the partnership between France and German that is needed today—not a drifting apart of the two countries.