Franco-German Relations
Franco-German Defence Cooperation

Between Political Divergences and Industry Dynamics
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A number of major dossiers on the future of defence cooperation in the EU are on the agenda of the next German government (federal elections scheduled for September this year). Looking at the different defence policies in Germany and France, the fundamental debate between inclusiveness and the ability to act in European foreign and defence policy becomes apparent. In essence, the main question is whether European defence policy should primarily serve inter-European understanding, confidence-building and cooperation or whether it should pursue a concrete security policy strategy and enable military missions in Europe's neighbourhood. According to the first approach, it is primarily a matter of creating general basic prerequisites, building up capabilities and strengthening or creating corresponding institutions. At its core, this inward-looking approach is inclusive and consensus-oriented and perceives the European contribution to NATO primarily from the perspective of increased territorial defence and deterrence. The second approach directly links capability development to distinct security policy objectives, relies on more flexible decision-making (the "multi-speed Europe") and includes security positioning and power projection beyond Europe's borders - which sometimes fuels the debate about a competition between EU and NATO.

In the first half of 2021, the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom in Brussels addressed this fundamental debate in a Franco-German discussion group on defence and security. Two roundtables were dedicated to the EU initiative Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) and to the Franco-German-Spanish armament project Future Combat Air System (FCAS), respectively. Thus, already existing challenges between France and Germany in European defence cooperation became clear; the tension between inclusiveness and ability to act and between looking inwards and outwards.

PESCO - Too Many Cooks Spoil the Broth?

Joint development of capabilities and improvement of operational readiness - PESCO's wish list is extensive. But in the French parliament, PESCO is being harshly criticised - while from a German liberal perspective, it is seen as an important further step towards increased integration.

The success of this political initiative, however, depends decisively on the national prioritisation, the so-called level of ambition. The existing political will stands in stark contrast to actual capabilities and resources. The Lisbon Treaty envisions close European cooperation among those with substantial military capabilities and resources. As gratifying as it is to have strong participation in defence cooperation (25 of 27 member states participating) – the price of this high inclusivity is that PESCO currently seems to be more symbolic than output-oriented. All participating states must agree on new project launches – which is why the Council has often validated projects which, according to the experts of the European Defence Agency (EDA), are "non-priority", "poorly calibrated" and even "useless". Not only are many projects still in the "brainstorming" phase four years after their initiation; of 47 PESCO projects total, more than a fifth clearly misses the mark, according to En-Marche MEP Natalia Pouzyreff. Moreover, PESCO's rules and regulations lack any sanction mechanisms for underperformance.

Last but not least, there is a lack of a common definition of what European autonomy in defence (from the French perspective, the long-term goal of PESCO) should actually entail. It starts with the definition of terms - European autonomy, European sovereignty? - and, in addition to questions of the deployment strategy of military means, it also faces hardened fronts on the issue of transatlantic integration. The "Strategic Compass", initiated during the German Council Presidency in 2020 with the aim of a common European threat analysis, is a step towards making these fronts more flexible through dialogue, even if in all likelihood it will not trigger any far-reaching changes.

Joint Armament Cooperation - Common Strategic Culture?

Germany, France and Spain reaching a "general agreement" on research and technology development for the armaments project FCAS (Future Combat Air System) in mid-May is anything but self-evident in light of the quite different strategic cultures of these countries.  

In France, for example, the parliament only plays a minor role in procurement decisions, while the very strong co-determination rights of the German Bundestag complicate joint long-term planning of FCAS – as it reserves the right to approve or reject projects on an individual basis.

Another example is the question of the use of armed drones, an essential part of the overall FCAS system. While using armed drones is clearly supported in France, it is politically highly controversial in Germany: there are strong opposing voices from the Greens and Social Democrats, whereas liberal and conservative circles are clearly in favour. This issue will certainly lead to considerable debate, especially when the next federal government is formed.

Another contentious topic is France’s wish for to use FCAS as a "first entry" instrument. This means that France foresees the system as a capability to be the first power to breach a potentially disputed area all over the world - if necessary, unilaterally. For Germany, whose strategic documents focus on territorial defence and integration into collective security systems such as NATO or potentially the EU, such global operations are extremely difficult to imagine.

Finally, the economic aspect and that of exportation: For example, French stakeholders have often pointed out that FCAS could also be exported across European borders, and perhaps even to countries like Saudi Arabia. In Germany, arms export issues are known to be considerably more sensitive.

Despite many questions that are still unresolved in terms of technology and industrial policy, the Bundestag approved funding for the next research and development phases 2021-2027 in its last session before the summer break. FCAS is "one of the most important European armament projects of the 21st century", but it is also associated with serious risks and uncertainties, said Marcus Faber, defence policy spokesman of the FDP parliamentary group.

European Integration Through Arms Cooperation?

This leads to a paradox: On the one hand, political and strategic objectives continue to diverge substantially between European partners - on the other hand, we have been observing a trend towards increased European armament cooperation.

According to the French political scientist Samuel Faure, the likelihood of successful European armament projects involving the French government increases when the autonomy of industrial actors vis-à-vis the French government is strong and when, at the same time, there is a high degree of interpersonal interdependence of French and European policymakers and private actors at the European level. This can lead to situations such as the procurement of the European transport aircraft A400M, where the European procurement option prevailed over US or national procurement alternatives. There are also industrial actors in France who advocate for European procurement projects as part of actor coalitions between industry and the state. Such pro-European actors should be given more attention.

In addition, the cooperation of non-state industrial actors could be further promoted, e.g. through the establishment of a Franco-German engineering school. This would strengthen mutual dependencies; at the same time, industrial actors could initiate projects precisely where strategic cultures seem to be at odds with each other. For FCAS, this means that a success of this mega-project also lies in the signal effect for Europe as a sign against national protectionism. This is especially true in France, where with Marine Le Pen there are powerful advocates for a self-sufficient defence policy independent of Europe.


Dr Nicolas Fescharek is research associate at the German Atlantic Society and moderated and conceived the Franco-German discussion group. The content of this text does not reflect the views of the German Atlantic Society; Jeanette Süß is European Affairs manager in the Brussels’s office of Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom where she leads activities related to France.