Franco-German cooperation can mitigate the rise of the European Right, lead the EU’s post-COVID19 economic recovery, and strengthen the EU’s defensive and strategic infrastructure.
The Franco-German partnership has been the cornerstone of European stability since World War II. Together with the United Kingdom, the three countries formed the E3 — as the wealthiest and most prominent European nations, which worked together for stability in Europe and maintenance of the liberal world order. One prominent example from recent times being, their centrality in negotiations over the Iran Nuclear Deal.
Now, in the face of the EU’s challenges — ranging from the ramifications of Brexit, the COVID-19 pandemic, the rising right-wing opposition within the EU, to even ascertaining its place in the geopolitical squeeze between the US and China, has raised the relevance of Franco-German cooperation.
The political consensus in France and Germany is shifting, with right-wing parties in both nations gaining momentum. Emmanuel Macron’s 2017 victory coalition against the Rassemblement Nationale (RN) led by Marine Le Pen has only temporarily mitigated the rise of the French right. This was paralleled in Berlin, due to Angela Merkel’s return to office in 2017 at the head of a weakened coalition, her declaration of not running for office in 2021 and the strengthening support for the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD). The prevalent uncertainty over her successor to the Chancellorship also throws the longevity of political decisions into turmoil.
On an EU level, the enlargement rounds between the years 2004 to 2013 have seen the inclusion of 13 new countries to the EU, followed by the formation of the Visegrad Group (the V4 — Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary). The prominence of right-wing nationalism in such cobblings has not only increased opposition to European integration, but also undercut the EU’s agenda on immigration, globalism and the rule of law. The loss of the UK’s voice in EU politics only compounded this, further diluting the combined political clout of Paris and Berlin.
The COVID-19 pandemic has now further accentuated this opposition, with the V4 leaders opposing bailout measures to aid the worst-hit nations in the EU. This, when coupled with the long-term uncertainties of political leadership given the rising likelihood of AfD or RN governments, has spurred further cooperation between Macron and Merkel — even at the cost of political compromises like withdrawing Germany’s opposition to Euro reform in the 2018 Meseberg Declaration, which was aimed at renewing Europe’s promises of security and prosperity and anchoring European cooperation in strong bilateral cooperation. Their joint efforts to assert the imperatives of European cohesion have been testament to Germany and France’s ability to take extraordinary measures when warranted.
The pandemic has given rise to uncertainty in terms of rising unemployment, reduced manufacturing, and has dented the GDP of several nations. To mitigate this, Germany cast aside decades of fiscal conservatism with Merkel’s announcement of a joint proposal with Macron on 10 May 2020 for a €500 billion European recovery programme funded through grants and not loans. This is in sharp contrast to Merkel’s long-time opposition to a substantial common budget or a true banking union, as well as the mutualisation of debt.
Furthermore, much of the funding for this initiative is intended to provide support to the sectors and regions most severely affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. This is yet another deviation from the usual stance taken by Germany alongside the ‘Frugal Four’ nations — Austria, Denmark, Sweden and the Netherlands — on the matter of ‘Eurobonds’ in the aftermath of the financial crisis in 2014 and on ‘Coronabonds’ earlier this year. Merkel had formerly opposed such proposals to bailout the Southern nations in times of crises.
Its passage aside, the proposal’s very existence is testament to a change in German mindset since its opposition to Eurozone reform in the 2018 Meseberg Declaration. Another instance is the German Finance Minister Olaf Scholz’s presentation of a roadmap to the European Central Bank (ECB) for actualising a banking union via a European Deposit Insurance Scheme (EDIS).
The EU now faces a challenge in terms of establishing itself as an important strategic actor in the 21st century’s geopolitical squeeze between the US and China. This challenge was compounded by Brexit, which left a gap in the European strategic framework — one that could now be filled by Germany. Though Germany’s position on defence and security is not equal to the UK or France as it does not have permanent membership to the UN Security Council and is not a nuclear-weapons state, it is still a potential defence and security powerhouse for the EU.
Merkel stepped up to the plate when she partnered with Macron to sign the Treaty of Aachen in January 2019, which included noting their convergences on security and defence strategies, fixing a common position on arms exports, and establishing the Franco-German Defence and Security Council. This was followed by a surge in defence and security-based initiatives, including a Franco-German agreement on export controls in the field of defence in October 2019.
This bilateral defence activism was complemented by increased defence spending by both nations, as well as increasing participation in NATO. Wherein, Germany is one of four framework nations of the Enhanced Forward Presence and is building a new NATO command centre in Ulm to combat Russia’s policy in Eastern Europe; and France is dedicating 1.8 percent of its GDP to the NATO budget (as of 2018), and making substantial contributions to NATO’s Readiness Initiative. This progress has occurred despite domestic concerns of Macron’s lack of confidence in NATO’s mandate, increasing domestic pushback against NATO’s nuclear sharing programme in Germany by the SPD, and rising uncertainty due to the recently announced US troop withdrawal from Germany.
Merkel and Macron have also begun to converge on China policy, although Macron’s concern of China as a possible security threat was previously dismissed in favour of allowing Huawei into the German 5G market. However, Merkel’s about-turn came in April this year, with the tightening of restrictions to prevent potentially predatory investment into high-tech industries, not long after China was labeled a “systemic rival” by the EU as a whole.
Summarily, despite the shifting domestic consensus and their relatively weakened position in the EU, France and Germany continue to form a strong partnership and can combat the V4 nations on their opposition to several key tenets of the EU’s agenda. Their collective economic heft — both are among the G7 economies — is enough to spur a change in how the EU manages the COVID-19 crisis, as well as how to reach the broader financial goals of the EU. They also form important strategic actors; albeit France more so than Germany by dint of its nuclear capabilities and defence spending.
Though reactionary, Macron and Merkel’s joint actions have reinvigorated the Franco-German relationship to form a proactive partnership. Their ability to set aside status-quo considerations and reach a consensus on matters that were non-negotiable until recently speaks to their flexibility. Building on their existing cooperation could well be the one force maintaining the EU project and mitigating further challenges.
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