German-French Ministerial Council
New Impulses for Stagnant Relationships - German-French Ministerial Council Meets in a New Format

Bundeskanzler Olaf Scholz und Emmanuel Macron
© picture alliance/dpa | Marcus Brandt

As the doors of the illustrious Hôtel Beauharnais on Rue de Lille 78 swung open on the evening of 4 October, and the masses streamed into the German Embassy in Paris to celebrate German Unity Day, the reports of the currently strained state of Franco-German relations seemed almost surreal. The new German Ambassador, Stephan Steinlein, graciously welcomed the nearly thousand attendees gathering in the hall. It buzzed with the presence of dedicated individuals from the spheres of politics, business, and society, all sharing a mixture of concern and hope as they eagerly anticipated the German-French Ministerial Council scheduled for 9 and 10 October in Hamburg.

The outcomes of the German-French retreat, kept discreet and overshadowed by the events in Israel, hold the potential to breathe new life into the stagnated Franco-German relations. They provide an opportunity to address contentious issues in an informal setting, eschewing grandiose public commitments. There is no shortage of initiatives, as highlighted in the project document of the Aachen Treaty. Following succinct presentations by an academic and a startup entrepreneur, delving into two major themes—the transformation of our societies through industrial change and the associated social cohesion, and technological sovereignty along with the application of Artificial Intelligence (AI)—in-depth discussions among cabinet members ensued.

Chancellor Olaf Scholz summarised that the discussions were exceptionally candid and held in an atmosphere of trust. However, a picturesque snapshot of shared fish sandwiches and a boat ride on the Elbe River should not obscure the fact that the disagreements between Germany and France are of a substantial nature, and despite the expressed political will, they are unlikely to simply dissolve into thin air.

Structural issues of German-French relations

Even though the German-French discord, particularly at the highest political levels, repeatedly comes to the surface, while unity and active exchange between the two countries are continually emphasized in the parliamentary arena, it would be a gross misjudgement to believe that the relationship problems between Germany and France are not of a structural nature. Looking into the intricacies of these complex relationships, it quickly becomes evident that, despite ongoing efforts in youth language exchanges and developmental programs, deep-seated mutual ignorance and misunderstandings persist across the breadth of both societies. This is demonstrated by the recent announcement, just before the German-French Ministerial Council, of the reduction of Goethe Institutes in France (including important cities like Bordeaux, Strasbourg, and Lille). In addition, there is a dramatic decline in German teachers and German learners in France and both French and German expertise in various research centres, foundations, or in the university context are considerably reduced. French students have become a rarity even in integrated binational study programs, to the extent that, for example, German students who completed their bachelor's degree entirely in France are counted as French in their master's programs. Therefore, it would be overly simplistic to attribute the lack of understanding for the respective partner country solely to the political level.

General sentiment overshadows meaningful individual initiatives

Despite political differences between Germany and France at the highest political level, it is important to recognise that the current German government shows a fundamental willingness to take initiative. For instance, the EU-wide initiative to reduce bureaucracy announced at the German-French Ministerial Council meeting by Justice Minister Marco Buschmann (FDP) and Economy Minister Robert Habeck (Bündnis 90/die Grünen) is a planned German initiative, already approved during the German Cabinet retreat in Meseberg and now intended to be approached on a European level, in partnership with France. This initiative aims to eliminate unnecessary reporting and information requirements and simplify European law, particularly to ease the burden on small and medium-sized enterprises. The goal is to revitalize European competitiveness in light of rising energy prices and competition-distorting subsidy packages like the American Inflation Reduction Act by improving the regulatory framework.

Another area of agreement pertains to artificial intelligence, which is intended to be advanced within the framework of various German-French projects. Education Minister Bettina Stark-Watzinger (FDP) emphasized the importance of joint initiatives, such as the development of supercomputing and the establishment of common standards within the currently ongoing trilogue negotiations on the AI Act in Brussels. This is aimed at striking a balance between necessary regulation and providing incentives for investments. Perhaps it is precisely in these uncharted paths of the future where bilateral and then European cooperation is more straightforward. Unlike in energy or defence policy, this field is less encumbered by historically entrenched thought patterns and firmly established political cultures that often clash when concrete projects are being developed. The situation differs in the realms of economic, energy, and defense policy.

French Schadenfreude over Germany's Economic Downturn Is Unwarranted

In recent months, French voices have increasingly expressed delight at the current recession in the German economy. Germany is often referred to in the French media as the “new sick man of Europe”, not entirely devoid of a certain Schadenfreude. However, it is important to remember that the German and French economies are closely intertwined, with France and Germany being each other's most significant trading partners within the EU.

While it is true that Germany's economic situation, with a recession of 0.3 to 0.5 percent (according to IMF estimates), is currently far worse than France's approximate 1% growth, it is worth considering long-term sustainable approaches to enhance the competitiveness of both countries, especially in competition with international players such as China or India. Moreover, the fluctuating energy prices and the challenge of decarbonizing industry underscore the importance of this question.

It is essential to recognize that, especially Germany and its globalized economic model, are particularly vulnerable to external shocks like Russia’s war in Ukraine and the reconsideration of established supply chains and trade partners, such as China or Russia. Strengthening economic resilience is, therefore, the need of the hour. However, the German approach significantly differs from the French perspective. While Germany focuses on diversifying its supply chains, France leans toward the perspective of relocating industry to Europe. Ideally, both perspectives should be considered in tandem, without descending into a competition for subsidies.

In the energy sector, the divisions are particularly entrenched

Given this context, the deeply ideological debates, especially in the field of energy, over the reform of the European electricity market, pitting nuclear energy against renewable energy, seem to be less productive. A European-level agreement on this matter is expected to be reached by the end of October, as announced by President Emmanuel Macron and Chancellor Olaf Scholz in their joint press statement on October 10th.

While a German-French working group on hydrogen, initially convened in April 2023, has not yet led to a convergence of positions, Germany and France should become more aware of the complementarity of their respective energy mixes and develop a better understanding of each other. Only with an approach that is open to technological development, joint investments in new technologies can succeed.

Joint Defence Projects as a Response to New Geopolitical Challenges

Ever since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, it has become abundantly clear that old assumptions about supposedly reliable partners like Russia or China have become obsolete. In this new world marked by shifts in the balance of power away from the pax americana towards a multipolar global order, a common geopolitical vision and military-strategic orientation for Germany, France, and the EU are essential. While Germany and France generally agree on their support for Ukraine, the coordination processes in foreign and security policy outlined in the Aachen Treaty signed nearly five years ago often seem to diverge rather than converge. Germany repeatedly displays hesitation when it comes to supplying new weaponry and often needs to be persuaded by France to take the next step. Even though Germany has moved beyond its initial announcement of supplying only helmets and protective gear to providing Leopard 2 tanks, which can be considered a significant development, it is still primarily focused on rebuilding its own military capability rather than strategically engaging in geopolitics.

In order to ensure defence capabilities in the future, especially in the face of an unpredictable American partner, there is no way around the joint development of weapon systems. This was emphasised by Michael Link (FDP), Coordinator for Transatlantic Cooperation and Member of the Bundestag, and Philippe Etienne, former French Ambassador to Germany and the United States, at an event organised by the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom in Freiburg. In September, the German and French Defence Ministers announced progress in the joint tank project MGCS. However, both countries have different planning horizons. Some German industrialists are more inclined to promote the new version of the Leopard 2 tank, rather than getting involved in costly, albeit innovative, transnational tank projects that are still in the distant future. In contrast, France urgently needs to modernize its Leclerc tank. A similar situation exists with the Future Combat Air System (FCAS), a combat aircraft scheduled to be operational by 2040, planned in cooperation with Spain – at least in theory. Both projects, which are interconnected, repeatedly raise questions about intellectual property and technological leadership, even though an equal partnership is theoretically envisioned. Therefore, it appears crucial for the future to closely coordinate political initiatives with the respective industrial representatives from the outset and not plan without their involvement.

Embracing EU Reforms as an Opportunity to Formulate a Positive German-French Agenda

On the occasion of the German-French Ministerial Council on 22 January, a German-French expert group was established to provide recommendations for institutional reforms within the European Union. The group has now presented its report to the two State Ministers for Europe, Anna Lührmann and Laurence Boone. The report outlines various scenarios, ranging from fundamental treaty changes through a European Convention, realistically not expected before 2030, to incremental steps within existing treaties. It also presents concrete proposals for enhancing the democratic structure and efficiency of European decision-making processes. Of particular concern to Germany is the transition from unanimity to qualified majority voting. However, despite France's general commitment to take this step, it remains uncertain to what extent France would be willing to entirely relinquish its national prerogatives, especially in the reserved domain of the French President, in foreign and security policy, and potentially be outvoted by Germany in Brussels.

German and French visions for the upcoming EU enlargement and the report's outlined four concentric circles of varying integration levels within and outside the EU, including the European Political Community, remain unclear. Diplomatic sources suggest that even within the Élysée, there is no precise idea of how this format, proclaimed by Emmanuel Macron in his speech to the European Parliament on Europe Day, 9 May 2022, will be institutionally anchored.

A clear timetable for implementing specific institutional reforms and the framework within which this will occur, such as treaty amendments, additional agreements, a multi-speed Europe, or the application of passerelle clauses, is still lacking. Diplomatic circles emphasize that the report is independent and does not represent the official positions of Germany or France. Nonetheless, it provides a strong starting point for discussions, as agreed upon by political advisers on both sides of the Rhine. To translate words into action, both countries should now agree on a joint approach to expedite decision-making processes within the EU and prepare for challenging negotiations with other partners, including Poland and Hungary.

Jeanette Süß is research assistant at the Study Committee for German-French Relations (Cerfa) of the French Institute of International Relations (Ifri) since March 2023. Prior to this, she served as the European Affairs Manager at the Brussels office of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom, where she was responsible for, among other things, the foundation's projects in France.