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The Franco-German connection and the future of Europe

By Ulrich Krotz and Joachim Schild

Ten years ago, at the Elysée Treaty’s 40th anniversary, Alain Juppé characterized France and Germany as the “privileged guardians of the European cohesion.” As the European Union’s key countries celebrated the 50th anniversary of their bilateral Treaty, Europe traverses a whole set of crises making the Franco-German “entente élémentaire” (Willy Brandt) appear as ever more important for providing or preserving European crisis management, decision-making, and, in whatever exact form: cohesion.

The endurance and the adaptability of the bilateral Franco-German connection—in spite of frequently dramatic domestic political changes (say changes of governments, parties in power, key personnel, economic rises, social upheavals, among others), regional European transformations (including widening and deepening European integration, the fall of the Iron Curtain, German unification), and wider international rupture or dynamism (such as the collapse of the Soviet Union, the end of the Cold War, or burgeoning globalization)—is a remarkable feature of European politics of the past half-century. Different combinations of a variety of factors have nurtured both resilience and adaptability of this bilateral link over time, political domains, and specific issues:

  • complementary (more often than identical) strategic and economic interests;
  • an extraordinarily tight fabric of bilateral institutions and norms to lubricate intergovernmental cooperation;
  • parapublic and transnational interconnections between the two countries civil societies to undergird public intergovernmental links;
  • the basic strategic choice on both sides generally to handle bilateral differences with delicacy, circumspection, and patience to arrive at compromises in bilateral and European matters whenever possible;
  • and, finally, what Stanley Hoffmann once called an “equilibrium of disequilibria”: an overall by and large balanced bilateral relationship that enabled France and Germany to exercise joint European leadership on a footing of relative equality.

In 1963, the Elysée Treaty crowned the period of Franco-German friendship following World War II. At the same time, the Treaty offered a frame for an emergent and lasting “special” bilateral relationship between France and Germany, and inserted the Franco-German connection at the very core of the evolving institutions and decision-making processes of the European Union and its various predecessors.

The signing of the treaty on 22nd January 1963. In the picture (sat at the table, left to right): Dr. Gerhard Schröder (Minister of Foreign Affairs), Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, President Charles de Gaulle, Prime Minister Georges Pompidou, and Maurice Couve de Murville (French Foreign Minister). Source: This image was provided to Wikimedia Commons by the German Federal Archive (Deutsches Bundesarchiv) as part of a cooperation project.

And very much in the spirit of its godfathers and signatories Charles de Gaulle and Konrad Adenauer, the Elysée Treaty helped to base this novel sort of Franco-German relationship not only on an unusual set of bilateral intergovernmental institutionalization, but also on linkages and interchange among the French and Germans beyond and below the intergovernmental level. Most notably, the past 50 years have seen the emergence and flourishing of a massive set of publicly funded or organizationally supported “parapublic” institutions and institutionalization, such as the Franco-German Youth Office (with some 8 million participants in exchange programs since its foundation); some 2200 “twinnings” (jumelages, Partnerschaften) between French and German towns or regional entities; connections between high schools and universities; and, later, the creation of the Franco-German TV channel ARTE, and the framework of the Franco-German University.

To be sure, the Franco-German connection of the past five decades has experienced numerous disagreements, crises, or even phases of protracted tensions. In retrospect, the Gaullist period, with fundamental and seemingly insurmountable divergence in French and German strategic orientations, might appear as the most trying. And yet, neither this phase, nor various enduring differences in political or economic inclinations, nor a motley crew of disagreements, have either broken the bilateral connection or led it to degenerate into marginal relevance.

At the celebrations of the Elysée Treaty’s 50th anniversary, and the beginning of what France and Germany have baptized “the Franco-German year,” two developments threaten the continued endurance and political relevance of this bilateral relationship in Europe: on the one hand, the seemingly deep disparities across major policy fields during this period of severe crises; on the other, an apparently increasing gap in economic performance and competitiveness.

As for the former, most visibly perhaps, France and Germany have so far not succeeded in developing bilateral compromises so as to decisively help manage or overcome the Eurozone crisis. Or, for that matter, even to define a coherent approach in dealing with this crisis and its possible implications for the future of European governance in the monetary realm or beyond. In the policy fields of foreign, security, and defense—equally of supreme importance—France’s and Germany’s disparate strategic cultures persist, and their visions of the EU’s role in international politics and security continue to diverge, most strikingly perhaps when it comes to the use of military force. Some of the key questions in these domains—how to position oneself and to act in an often dangerous and violent world in which the most comfortable and comforting answers do not always suffice—continue especially to plague German elites.

Plaque commemorating the restoration of relations between Germany and France, showing Adenauer and Charles de Gaulle. Photo by Adam Carr, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

However, it is the seemingly ever worsening loss of economic performance and competitiveness on France’s side, the erosion of the domestic economic bases of France’s bilateral and European standing, and the growing bilateral asymmetry in power and influence between the two countries, that pose the greatest challenge for the future of the Franco-German connection and for the survival of the Eurozone. While it is hardly conceivable that the Franco-German relationship could be based on a France lastingly in the role of the junior partner, the European Union more than ever requires strong leadership in order to navigate through its arguably deepest set of crises since its emergence from the treaties of Paris and Rome. Neither German hegemony, nor frequently weakened or inchoate supranational European institutions, nor another bilateralism or minilateral grouping is available to act as a replacement for the joint Franco-German role at the core of Europe.

The ability of France to face the realities of decline, and the courage and political will of its leaders to comprehensively reform the social and economic model—no matter how painful or divisive domestically—are indispensable conditions for that the tremendous success story of the Franco-German connection in Europe to continue and blossom beyond the celebrations of the Elysée Treaty’s anniversary and the Franco-German year.

Ulrich Krotz and Joachim Schild are the authors of Shaping Europe: France, Germany, and Embedded Bilateralism from the Elysée Treaty to Twenty-First Century Politics. Ulrich Krotz is Professor at the European University Institute, where he holds the Chair in International Relations in the Political Science Department and the Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies. Joachim Schild is Professor of Political Science at the University of Trier.

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