What is the state of Franco-German relations?
On 22 January 2023, French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz met in Paris to celebrate 60 years of the Elysée Treaty, which is the foundation for the strong relationship between France and Germany.
However, the relations between both sides are presently going through a period of turbulence. The postponement of the Franco-German Council of Ministers, planned for 26 October 2022, was a clear sign of that. Macron and Scholz did have a business lunch, but the lack of a joint press conference made this meeting one of the iciest Franco-German meetings in recent history.
The two governments exchanged several low blows. For example, the German chancellor barely mentioned France in his speech on the European Union in Prague (August 2022). In its plans for the EU enlargement, Berlin aimed to have a union with “30 or 36 members,” a goal Paris does not share. Similarly, Macron multiplied veiled criticisms of Berlin.
As a result, the public feels this tension, with 36 per cent of French respondents and 39 per cent of Germans telling pollster Ipsos (poll conducted in mid-January 2023) that bilateral relations were suffering.
What obstacles are impeding bilateral relations?
Germany and France are on opposing sides on a rather long list of topics. Three dossiers top the list: Energy, defence, and foreign policy.
Concerning energy, both countries have grievances about each other’s selfish policies. Berlin negotiated a gas deal with Spain to be delivered via pipelines across French territory. Paris refused point blank, signing a separate agreement with Madrid and Lisbon to establish an underwater pipeline to deliver energy from Barcelona to Marseille.
Berlin also offered €200bn in state aid to confront the energy crisis. This package, which shielded German firms and families from soaring energy bills, drew a slew of criticism from Paris and other European capitals, which were hoping the German state would provide the lion’s share to an EU package.
Concerning defence, the Russia-Ukraine war has turned Germany’s strategic outlook upside down. After World War II, Germany adopted Washington’s security umbrella, which allowed Berlin to build a strong economy. On the other hand, France, the only nuclear-armed state in the EU, likes to consider itself the main guarantor of EU security. However, the Ukraine war confirmed that without Washington’s military aid, Russian tank columns would have cut Ukraine like a hot knife through butter.
Meanwhile, the Bundeswehr is in a dire state, plagued by ageing material, low budgets, and an excruciating slow procurement. Hence, Chancellor Scholz announced a special €100 billion fund to upgrade its armed forces swiftly. Again, Macron hoped these budgets would go to the French industry. But Berlin opted for US systems – like F-35 fighter jets. The latter are nuclear-capable and offer more NATO interoperability.
Still, Macron conducted intense lobbying. Consequently, Scholz conceded and accepted the French proposals on the next-gen fighters (FCAS). One analyst described the agreement as a “French victory, a German capitulation.”
In addition, both sides diverge over the Ukraine war. Both sides broadly agree that Ukraine needs support but not at the cost of totally alienating Russia. Scholz is facing the ire of the White House for stalling the export of advanced German tanks to Kyiv. Macron seems to have adopted a harder rhetoric.
What are the prospects of this relationship?
Macron does not have a parliamentary majority and presides over an ever more pessimistic country. The French president is unpopular at home, with French unions and opposition figures mobilising against his pension reform.
In the meantime, the Ukraine war exposed all German bureaucratic frailties. Several high-level German officials have been compromised or deemed to be spying for Russia. Following a long trail of blunders, the resignation of Federal Minister of Defence Christine Lambrecht revealed cracks within Scholz’s coalition. Moreover, the German chancellor’s promise to re-arm the German army is facing a considerable snag. Many experts are sceptical about how decades of neglect of the military institution could be reversed quickly.
Since both Macron and Scholz face difficulties at home, they will seek to score some points in foreign policy. Both leaders penned on 20 January an op-ed in “Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung” to signal their alignment towards the EU enlargement process. Therefore, the two counterparts will likely iron out many of their tactical differences.
What they cannot do, however, is undo geo-strategic realities. The European project moved ahead for decades thanks to two powerful economic engines: Germany and France. In the 1980s, West Germany’s economy was slightly larger than France’s, but not by a wide margin. Moreover, French economic growth, at times, exceeded Germany’s. Presently, the gap has become striking. Germany’s GDP is 30% more than France, and Germany’s USD 1.46 trillion export revenues are three times more than France’s.
Given the French decline over time, Germany does not want to become the main engine carrying the entire EU vessel without reviewing terms and conditions. It is this reality that the French leaders refuse to acknowledge, multiplying petty manoeuvres to delay the inevitable.
This article originally appeared in the Analysis section of Anadolu Agency’s website.