60 years of Franco-German Relations

A Friendship Based on Pragmatism and Realpolitik
60. Jubiläums des Élysée-Vertrags

60. Jubiläum des Élysée-Vertrags

© picture alliance/dpa | Michael Kappeler

The ceremony marking the 60th anniversary of the Élysée Treaty has shown that both countries agree on the challenges of our time, but Franco-German relations could certainly be in better shape, at least at the highest political level. Even before announcing multi-billion investments in the French military, French President Macron stated that he would deliver light combat tanks (AMX 10-RC) vehicles to Ukraine, while also not ruling out the delivery of Leclerc battle tanks. The announcement can be interpreted as a signal to Chancellor Scholz for Germany to finally deliver Leopard 2 tanks.

What Germany can do, France has long been able to do. France's announcement to invest a total of 413 billion euros in the French military from 2024 to 2030 can be understood as a reaction to the German government's 100 billion investment in the Bundeswehr and its adherence to NATO's 2% target. The last time France made a similarly high investment was under Charles de Gaulle in the 1960s, when France became a nuclear nation. Macron's announcement on 20th January seems almost like an act of defiance on France's part. Germany is mistaken if it thinks that it can catapult itself to the economic and military top of Europe with its 'double whammy' of special assets and annual military expenditure and leave its closest neighbour behind.

This quite symbolic side blow just two days before the 60th anniversary of Franco-German Friendship Day is part of a chain of sulking reactions from the French side: the Franco-German Council of Ministers in Paris in October 2022 was cancelled citing vague reasons. Now, shortly before the 60th anniversary of the Élysée Treaty, it became clear that only about 140 members of the Bundestag would be attending the official ceremony of the friendship treaty in France instead of the entire Bundestag, and the ceremony was moved from Versailles to the Sorbonne without further ado. And then, the French head of state also signed a bilateral friendship treaty with Spain, which had been planned for a long time but was sealed just before the Franco-German ceremony. In short: Franco-German relations, at least at the highest political level, could certainly be in better shape.

The missing Sorbonne Speech 2.0

The speeches at the ceremony marking the 60th anniversary of the Élysée Treaty at the Sorbonne University in Paris were eagerly awaited. There was no shortage of speeches and expressions of friendship on that day, which was accompanied not only by a ceremony at the Sorbonne but also by a subsequent double working session of the German Bundestag and the Assemblée Nationale, as well as the Franco-German Council of Ministers, followed by a press conference. While Federal Chancellor Olaf Scholz and President Emmanuel Macron had already outlined "seven strategic goals to strengthen Europe" in a guest article at the FAZ two days earlier, their respective celebratory speeches did not contain any new proposals. Although the traffic light coalition took a big step towards the energetic French president in terms of European policy with its coalition agreement and Olaf Scholz called for further European integration in his Prague speech at the end of September 2022, the numerous small individual projects and proclamations do not seem comparable to the major integration policy developments such as the creation of a single market, the Maastricht Treaty or the monetary union that the Franco-German engine once drove forward.

Although Chancellor Scholz thanked the French president for his commitment to European policy, which he had impressively outlined in the Sorbonne speech in 2017, he failed to convey the same European enthusiasm of the French head of state, at least rhetorically. In his speech at the ceremony, the Chancellor essentially repeated the major European policy priorities and imperatives for the coming years.

Expansion of Existing Projects

In contrast, more substance can be found in the jointly adopted declaration following the Franco-German Council of Ministers, which focuses on the areas of foreign and defence cooperation, industrial and financial policy cooperation, the further development of the European Union and the consolidation of bilateral initiatives.

In foreign and defence policy cooperation, apart from the announcement that the German and French armed forces are planning joint exercises of the Franco-German brigade in Lithuania and Romania, no new initiatives were announced, only the will to cooperate was affirmed. In particular, Emmanuel Macron was unable to elicit a firm commitment from the German Chancellor to deliver Leopard-2 battle tanks to Ukraine. In the development of joint weapons systems, the already planned but so far only moderately advanced ground combat system MGCS is to be pushed ahead instead, and cooperation in aerospace is to be expanded. The Western Balkans, the partnership with Africa and the presence of Germany and France in the Indo-Pacific make up the geopolitical priorities that are or will be part of the respective national security strategies of Germany and France. These are all directly linked to the French national security strategy published in November, soon to be followed by a German one.

Within the energy sector, energy efficiency and renewable energies are to be developed with a "joint roadmap". "Especially in the field of energy supply, there are great synergy effects that we can use," says Nicole Westig (FDP), member of the Bundestag and chairperson of the Franco-German friendship group. An already established working group between the French and German ministries serves this purpose. The Franco-German plans for a hydrogen union are also to be pushed forward and "strategic decisions" are "planned for the end of April 2023". 

But the question of how hydrogen is to be produced remains controversial. While France would like to use its nuclear power for this purpose, Germany relies mainly on electricity from renewable energies. The German plan to build another gas pipeline (MidCat) with Spain failed due to France's resistance. Thus, in order to alleviate the existing friction in the Franco-German relationship with regard to energy cooperation, the recently agreed Franco-Spanish H2-Med hydrogen pipeline is to be extended to Germany. 

A "new Franco-German research programme on new battery technologies" will also be created, as well as a "Franco-German dialogue platform on battery charging and hydrogen dispensing infrastructure". There is great agreement on the definition of key technologies and the need to promote European strategic autonomy. This is mainly driven by the unilateral motivation to become less dependent on individual suppliers such as China, however, the implementation of such projects is notoriously more difficult. The mistakes of the past should not be perpetuated, as the lesson of the Franco-German-Spanish FCAS (future combat air system) shows. Politically desired and decided at the highest level, the companies based on industrial policy competition were not involved enough in the decision-making process to eliminate dissonance from the outset with regard to technology leadership and patents. Not surprisingly, this was the cause of the dispute between Airbus and Dassault.

Apart from these quite concrete announcements and initiatives, proposals for the further development of the European Union remain vague. The demand for majority decisions in the Council in the Common Foreign and Security Policy as well as in tax matters, the application of the political instrument of enhanced cooperation and the creation of transnational/ Europe-wide lists do not go beyond what Macron mentioned in his speeches at the "Conference on the Future of Europe" and Scholz Prague in his back in autumn 2022. But an enlarged Union of 35 or more member states will only be able to remain efficient if necessary reforms are carried out. 

As much as Germany and France would like to see further Europeanisation of decision-making powers and electoral systems, their introduction before the 2024 European elections seems unlikely. The Franco-German declaration of 22 January may have disappointed one or two pro-Europeans. Several member states are blocking treaty reforms. This behaviour of other member states is perhaps also responsible for the low level of ambition of the declaration. After all, it was eagerly awaited and was supposed to contain grand European policy ideas of both countries for the next 15 years.

It will probably be more realistic to implement other bilateral approaches, such as the introduction of 60,000 rail tickets for young people in Germany and France announced by Transport Minister Volker Wissing (FDP), or the night train connection between Paris and Berlin, and the establishment of a fund for cultural assets from African countries. Overall, the declarations and initiatives of the Franco-German Day are therefore characterised by a great deal of pragmatism and realpolitik. They do not, however, contain a 'grand gesture' in the direction of stronger European integration. But perhaps there is no need for this, because there was no lack of proposals beforehand, which were already available in the form of the numerous projects of the Aachen Treaty, which will be concluded in 2019. Particularly in key technologies, major industrial policy projects are on the agenda that now need to be implemented. With an announced hydrogen union, joint European projects in areas such as artificial intelligence, battery cell research or cloud computing, Germany and France can and should lead the way, paving the way for a new technology avant-garde that other countries will join.

Franco-German relations will have to break out of their silo mentality

In order for trend-setting decisions to actually take place, cooperation between the political, economic and civil-society levels in Franco-German relations need to be strengthened. Franco-German cooperation is still too entrenched in a silo mentality. For example, cooperation at the level of civil society functions very well. Germany and France are still linked by numerous city partnerships. In addition, youth exchanges take place with important intermediary organisations such as the Franco-German Youth Office (DFJW) or academic exchanges within the framework of the Franco-German University, not to mention the multifaceted cultural relations on both sides of the Rhine. But linking these with the other levels is lacking in many places. Besides the post-war generation and a young selective elite, other sections of societies hardly benefit from Franco-German cooperation projects, where language acquisition and exchange remain indispensable. At present, only about 15% of the respective populations speak the respective neighbouring language. German teachers, for example, are paid far too little in France, and a new language strategy is needed in both countries to promote mutual understanding, according to the unanimous opinion of the panellists at a discussion event in the Assemblée Nationale, which was organised in cooperation with the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom and the FDP Paris with German and French MPs. In East Germany in particular, knowledge of and interest in France is limited. This can mainly be attributed to the low level of direct investment, which is ten times lower than in Hamburg, for example, as Secretary General of the DFJW, Tobias Bütow, pointed out in the Volksstimme.

Parliamentary networking is essential, but remains fragmented

Advocating for these concerns, the exchange of youth and young adults in vocational education and training, beyond well-known student exchanges or Erasmus, will become the focus under the newly elected chairperson of the Franco-German Parliamentary Group, as French Member of Parliament for the Renaissance Party Sylvain Maillard affirms. The friendship group exists in parallel to the Franco-German Parliamentary Assembly (DFPV), which was only created in 2019 and is dedicated to reviewing the progress of the Aachen Treaty. The friendship group intends to strengthen relations between parliamentarians and deepen knowledge of the working methods of parliamentarians through mutual exchange formats for example through a short internship.

In contrast, the working methods of the DFPV are still very formal, criticised its chairperson on the French side, Brigitte Klinkert, at the discussion event on 21 January. The exchange at the parliamentary level between the two countries should not be limited to formal debates, as has been the case so far in the eleven meetings of the DFPV, but should produce issue-specific coalitions and clear contact persons within the framework of working groups that are in constant exchange with each other. Noteworthy in the joint declaration of the two parliamentary presidents of the Assemblée Nationale and the German Bundestag are twelve policy areas in which they would like to continue their parliamentary exchange and thus ultimately also exert pressure on the respective government action. This is urgently necessary, because, in addition to the important current priority topics at the executive level, other topics such as European migration policy, development cooperation or gender equality policy must not be left out. The establishment of a working group between the two parliaments on the implementation of European law is also a positive development because there is still a lack of real understanding between the national and European levels. 

At the discussion event in the Assemblée Nationale, the liberal European politician Jan-Christoph Oetjen stated that he repeatedly experienced how the complex European legislative process was not understood enough at the national level and how networking between national and European parliamentarians remained fragmented. In order not to offend the other European partners, it is also important that Germany and France do not form a "directorate", but "act in the sense of the EU as a whole", as the European policy spokesman of the FDP parliamentary group in the Bundestag and former Federal Government Commissioner for Franco-German Cooperation, Michael Link, affirmed in social media.

By marking the 60th anniversary of the Élysée Treaty, Germany and France have shown that they agree on the important European policy challenges of our time. Expansion of cooperation is needed in various policy areas, without embarking on entirely new paths. Instead of great élan, moving forward in small steps seems to be the order of the day. A little more pathos and emotion would not have hurt, especially on the part of the Germans vis-à-vis the French. Then Germany might have been able to convince the slightly-offended French of its true desire to reform Europe. Civil society engagement will be all the more important to contribute to an understanding between the two peoples on politics, society and culture - a task also for the European Dialogue Programme of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom.

Jeanette Süß is European Affairs Manager in the regional office "European Dialogue" of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom in Brussels, where she is in charge of the France activities.

27 Jan
27.01.2023 15:00 hrs

Was Frankreich bewegt - 60 Jahre Élysée-Vertrag