28 January 2019

Franco-German cooperation has long been considered the engine driving forward EU integration. Many claim it has been faltering due to mounting domestic pressures, but this approach does not account for the deeper cleavages that divide the two countries in most areas. France and Germany signed a treaty in Aachen on January 22 to renew the original Élysée Treaty of 1963, embodying Franco-German reconciliation. The symbolism of the new treaty is not backed with substantial promises, despite Macron saying that France and Germany will address challenges of time “hand in hand.”

Macron underlined that Franco-German unity and convergence is the answer to nationalist threats that also exist within European borders, whilst Merkel suggested this treaty signifies that “we want to give an impulse to European unity.” However, criticisms against the content of the treaty are mounting. French newspaper Le Monde’s view is emblematic of many critics’ understanding of the treaty, claiming that it repeats already existing practices and in most areas contains general objectives. In a similar vein, the German newspaper Handelsblatt said that France and Germany missed a chance with this treaty “that only showed good intentions but no concrete measures.”

The lack of strong proposals for a future direction comes at a time when Eurosceptic forces have shifted to a strategy of changing the EU agenda from within; Hungary, Italy and Poland are attacking EU norms on law and order and immigration and Brexit is convulsing Europe. During this challenging time, the treaty contains mainly symbolic pledges framed around “facing 21st century challenges” and does not signal any abiding commitment to a deeper or radically different union.

No new or ground-breaking proposals on the Eurozone, Defence or Migration

On economic cooperation, there is a proposal on a Franco-German economic zone and a “Franco-German council of economic experts” consisting of 10 independent members responsible for making “recommendations for economic action.” German newspaper Die Welt rightly suggested that the treaty is also defined by what is missing. Looking back at Macron’s Sorbonne speech in 2017 on Eurozone reform, the three main proposals are absent from this treaty. Banking union talks have stalled, the creation of a Eurozone finance minister is not on the table and a Eurozone budget is also notably absent. German disagreement with these proposals has also been backed by the New Hanseatic League, a group of Northern European countries opposing Macron’s economic proposals, but the absence of any genuine step for more integration in the Eurozone points to the lack of consensus.

There are also mentions of deepening “cooperation in foreign policy and internal and external defence” and committing to “providing aid and assistance by all means in case of aggression against their territory.” These commitments merely reaffirm what is already existent in NATO and EU treaties. A permanent seat for Germany in the UNSC is also endorsed by France. The treaty also includes possible joint deployments in the event of a terror attack and closer cooperation on procurement, such as the purchase or development of new tanks or fighter jets. Merkel said that this treaty paves the way for a “common military culture” between France and Germany that could “contribute to the creation of a European army.”

Nevertheless, long-standing differences in political culture and public perception are likely to block the formation of a common Franco-German policy. Germany remains suspicious of French initiatives to strengthen defence projects, having opposed interventionist initiatives in Libya and Syria. A lukewarm Germany compounded by a number of influential sceptical states such as the Netherlands makes a European army highly improbable.

Treaty recommendations also include cross-border initiatives with an objective of increasing language training and improving the lives of citizens on the Franco-German border. These symbolic gestures chime with the broader moral weight of the treaty as a symbol of European unity, also underscored in the German Foreign Office press release.

Apart from the shortcomings of proposals on Eurozone and Defence, there is an absence of proposals on Migration. Macron’s European vision did not include migration reform and Merkel has espoused a cautious pro-immigration approach that she had to backtrack on due to fierce domestic opposition. This confirms the fact that the treaty presents no alternative to the status quo in the three key European areas, namely Eurozone, Defence and Migration, and merely reinforces closer ties in areas such as cross-border cooperation.

Far right and Gilets Jaunes opposition to Franco-German cooperation came from President of the right-wing National Rally party, Marine Le Pen, calling the deal “treacherous” and Gilets Jaunes circulating news that Macron was handing control of Alsace to Germany. This comes as Le Pen recently accused Macron of selling the French country to Germany. However, the lack of substance in the treaty is problematic for the French far right. It has become difficult for Le Pen to articulate a clear anti-European strategy, with French exit from the EU being an unpopular option, so clinging on some more vague themes to rally around might be her preferred current strategy. Meanwhile, the German Alternative for Germany (AfD) leader, Alice Weidel, described the treaty as furthering French interests at the expense of Germany.

Conclusion

Signs of the European project being shaken up from the inside are abundant and the lack of a bold blueprint by France and Germany increases the perception of a vacuum of power at the helm of the EU. French newspaper Le Figaro struck a more optimistic note, saying,

At a moment when UK is leaving the EU and when populist movements are expanding, the reaffirmation of two big European countries to deepen cooperation can serve as basis for the future.

However, as described above, this treaty affirms once more the lack of a Franco-German consensus in most major areas. Merkel said that it was a signal against nationalism and Macron hailed it as furthering European unity, but the limited agreement in the Franco-German camp surprisingly contradicts the case for a stronger EU and exposes the rift between words and actions. If France and Germany do not find an outline for future EU direction, new groups might coalesce around specific issues to steer the future course for Europe.