by Stefanie Buzmaniuk, Senior Research Fellow, Robert Schuman Foundation, Paris
For some months now, the message has been clear in France: the Franco-German couple needs a “couple’s therapy”. The need for more emotions and affirmative reactions from the German side is repeatedly expressed by the French. The German media, on the other hand, have far less reported on the Franco-German crisis; “couple’s therapy” is rarely demanded, also because the word couple is perceived as a term that is too intimate for such a practical relationship. The Germans prefer the word motor (engine). Still, the German side does feel uneasy about its current relation with France, but first and foremost because France is understood as the country mainly pushing its own agenda on the European scene without considering German interests.
There seems to be a big misunderstanding. Both countries are disappointed in the other’s attitude and have lost the appetite to negotiate. Even though grand symbolic statements were made on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the Elysée Treaty, the Franco-German tandem is rusty on the level of European, bilateral and even local cooperation with difficult negotiations in the European Council, the Franco-German Council of Ministers being postponed, less and less young Germans speaking French and vice-versa.
This is not good news for the rest of Europe. Since the beginning of the creation of a united Europe with the Schuman Declaration in 1950, it had been obvious: without close cooperation between the two historically war-torn countries, Europe will not be able to move forward.
This is still the case. If France and Germany are not looking in the same direction, no consensus on a European level can be found. Of course, negotiations are always necessary to get there, because instinctively, France and Germany have different views on all sorts of priorities and policies. What is currently worrying, though, is that the most important disagreements exist in the political fields that matter the most at the moment: defence, energy, and economy. Negotiations on all these subjects are stalling.
The awareness of urgency and common interests has to be found again: in times when war is back on our continent, Europe needs a strong and united answer in order to be able to defend itself against hybrid, conventional, and even nuclear aggression. At the moment, when traditional energy supplies are rare and expensive and new and clean energy forms have to be found and financed, only a European approach can live up to the challenge. When inflation hits hard and the US puts Europe under pressure with its Inflation Reduction Act, mobilising $370bn in subsidies from 2023, no national answer will be sufficient in order to bring our economy back on its feet and ensure that it remains competitive.
Even though Franco-German relations have cooled down, they need to be rebuilt on all levels. This can only be done by finding mutual trust and confidence in each other’s words again and by rediscovering interest in the other side’s perspective. However, expectations need to be managed: on certain topics neither France nor Germany will move. NATO will remain the main building block of German defence and France will continue to push for a European approach. These two visions, though, are not mutually exclusive and currently both sides seem to have understood one part of the solution: NATO does remain essential for European defence as Russia is continuing its unjustified war against Ukraine, and building a stronger Europe which can defend itself and has a resilient and interoperable defence industry is indeed more vital than ever before.
The German and the French sides need to reckon with mutual differences, work with and around them in order to stay strong together and find new ways forward by combining their efforts. Common interests are nowadays plentiful, the road to reaching them must be taken with a newly found pragmatism.