January 20, 2013 7:34 pm

The union at Europe’s heart is frayed

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François Heisbourg says he is deeply struck by the loss of Franco-German intimacy

The official rationale may have been prudent monetary policy. But coming on the eve of the anniversary of the treaty that cemented postwar reconciliation between France and Germany, last week’s announcement of the Bundesbank’srepatriation of its gold from the Banque de France was a poignant symbol of the fraying of the relationship between the two powers at the heart of the EU.

From the eurozone crisis to intervention in Libya and Mali, and the failed merger of EADS and BAE Systems, the differences and tensions between Paris and Berlin are palpable. The fabled Franco-German motor appears no longer to be driving European integration.

It all seems a world away from 50 years ago this week, when Charles de Gaulle and Konrad Adenauer signed the Elysée treaty. This was no standard intergovernmental pact. They were creating the conditions for the exercise of joint leadership in shaping Europe’s “ever closer union”. They also hoped to lay the foundations of a common strategic – not merely economic – destiny. Even if the partnership has not sundered, those initial high spirits and lofty aspirations seem long gone.

So what went wrong, and what will happen now? One ambition was unrealistic from the start. Under US pressure, the Bundestag ratified the treaty with language that precluded any prospect of fulfilling its strategic goals. No surprise, then, that the recent war in Libya, for instance, was not a Franco-German enterprise. It takes time and patience to nurture a common strategic culture.

Conversely, the attempt to jointly shape the EU integration process was largely successful, and its consequences are embedded in institutions and culture. German-style subsidiarity, whereby powers are devolved to the lowest appropriate level, coexists with French-style technocracy. This success was facilitated, not hindered, by the deep divergences in Adenauer and de Gaulle’s visions for Europe – a federal entity for the former, a collection of nation-states for the latter – as once they or their successors had agreed on what to do, the other countries followed. But this process has lost its impetus as a result of the bloc’s enlargement – starting with the UK in 1973 – and the rise of generations of leaders who no longer carry the historical baggage of the founding fathers.

More importantly, the willingness of Berlin and Paris to overcome their differences – the imperative underpinning the treaty – has dissipated. The initial division of labour between French political and strategic power and German economic and monetary strength ended with the Soviet Union. A reunited Germany rediscovered its national interests, which no longer needed to be systematically set in a European framework implying French agreement.

France’s diminishing usefulness in Germany’s eyes, and the change in their relative strength, reduced the incentive to plan together. This in turn removed the complicity characterising relations in the 1970s and 1980s under presidents Valéry Giscard d’Estaing and François Mitterrand and chancellors Helmut Schmidt and Helmut Kohl. Having been involved in the Franco-German security and defence dialogue for the past 30 years, I am deeply struck by this loss of intimacy.

Yet if happiness has become impossible, divorce is quite improbable, and for the most banal reasons. Splitting would be costly and is best avoided for the sake of the “children” (the European pTaggedroject). Abandoning the exclusivity of the relationship would force each partner to build ad hoc coalitions for every initiative in an uncongenial, EU-wide context of economic recession and political acrimony. Both countries would pay an enormous price were the euro and the EU to collapse – and, without French-German convergence, such an implosion becomes more likely.

Divorce could become an option if the EU suffers game-changing shocks, the most obvious of which would be a catastrophic evolution of the euro crisis.

Germany’s institutions and public opinion may not permit a timely response to the political upheaval provoked by economic suffering on Europe’s southern periphery; nor are they likely to accept a decisive move towards a full-blown fiscal transfer union. After the bruising experience of 2005, when it rejected the European constitution in a referendum, France would also find it hard to go for a federal EU.

Yet the real game-changer could come from the third big EU player: Britain. If the UK left, France would find herself locked into a situation in which Germany’s distinctive strategic culture and security policy would prevail. This would not be easy to accept for the French, who continue, like the British, to have their own views on international security and the use of force. France could then be tempted to balance the German centre through the systematic practice of countervailing coalitions with the other members of the EU. And, with that, the spirit of the Elysée treaty would be irrevocably lost.

The writer is special adviser at the Fondation pour la Recherche Stratégique

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