France-German Relations in an Era of Intergovernmentalism
The ceremonies on the 60th anniversary of the Elysée Treaty reaffirmed the friendship between France and Germany. While the Franco-German Ministerial Council had been postponed as it needed to prepare itself better, the outcomes were disappointing in the absence of major announcements.
After a period of misunderstandings, the decision to intensify joint discussion in the manner of working groups is already a victory in itself. France took the opportunity to remind Germany of the importance of the Franco-German axis and that the decisions of one of the Member States would not be without consequences for its partners and for Europe as a whole. This comes after Germany made several decisions without the consultation with France. Once this had been done, contacts were resumed. The numerous councils and working groups aim to harmonise positions, avoid divergences and put forward concrete proposals. But only time and results will tell whether these commitments are sufficient.
Following the renewed commitment by Germany through the Aachen Treaty in 2019, France has made the impression that it wants to rebalance its partnership by signing two other treaties. The Quirinal Treaty with Italy signed on 26 November 2021, which came into force on 1 February 2023, and the Barcelona Treaty, signed on 19 January 2023 just three days before the Franco-German celebration.
The French President has made the most bilateral agreements within the Union since assuming office. So, at first sight, it seems paradoxical that he is also the one pushing most strongly for the strengthening of the European community. In the past Charles de Gaulle's wish to change Robert Schuman's project of community to an intergovernmental cooperation through the Elysée Treaty was only avoided by the intervention of the German parliament. This makes one wonder about France’s European strategy. Undoubtedly, it can be seen as France's desire to strengthen its traditional allies in southern Europe, for example as seen during the negotiation of the recovery plan following the Covid crisis. But it is certainly also a signal to Germany that the Franco-German tandem may not be the only exclusive model within Europe.
The three treaties mentioned above are of course not of the same kind, but they do have similarities. First of all, France does not seem to want to sign agreements of this type with other European countries. The treaties were signed only with neighbouring countries. However, they go further than the usual cross-border issues and include chapters on defence, education, sustainable development, economic cooperation and consultation on European issues. Thus, they establish a roadmap with concrete projects that go beyond the current political constellations by establishing a de facto cooperation in the medium and long term. Nevertheless, their realisation still depends on the political will of the European leaders as shown by the Franco-German stalemate of the last few months and the doubts that are being cast on the Quirinal Treaty by the new Italian Council President, Georgia Meloni. Faced with the creation of new blocs around France, Germany is also seeking to strengthen its bilateral ties with Spain. It signed an action plan with Spain and plans to sign one with Italy in 2023 despite Georgia Meloni as the new head of state.
These action plans correspond to a more pragmatic and flexible approach as they do not require parliamentary ratification. They are therefore also less symbolic. But the consolidation of bilateral ties with countries around France on the one hand and the Franco-German axis on the other could generate potential competition between the different bilateral couples. Indeed, it could in the contrary instigate more trouble for France if it tries to deal with Germany, Spain, and Italy using the same standards.
Fortunately, the three treaties specify better coordination in European politics through bilateral rapprochement and thus will hopefully improve cooperation and trust between these countries. One should not forget to mention, however, that for now, these are merely declarations by states in an intergovernmental process that is not very inclusive of national parliaments or civil society.
Emmanuel Macron's flagship announcement in 2022 also highlighted intergovernmentalism with the creation of the European Political Community (EPC). But the EPC opens old issues. It puts France and Germany at the forefront so they can use their networks and leadership positions. It was therefore judicious to include the EPC in the joint declaration of the Franco-German Ministerial Council and to put this initiative in perspective with the Berlin Process launched in 2014.
It is not difficult to understand the strategy behind France's decisions of wanting to align the positions of significant players on European issues. This is in fact not very different from what Germany is doing. Nevertheless, it is regrettable that the European Commission and the European Council, in conjunction with the Parliament, a true supranational entity, are excluded from this important driver in European integration.
The European Union should find more flexible ways of achieving the enlargement and deepening process and make use of the tools at its disposal such as enhanced cooperation and bridging existing clauses.
Éric Pestel is Secretary General of the Association Renaissance européenne Paris. Jeanette Süß is European Affairs manager at the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom in Brussels.
This article appeared originally in French on Euractiv: https://www.euractiv.fr/section/l-europe-dans-le-monde/opinion/la-franc…