France — Germany: Will the Tandem Survive?

The conflict in Ukraine has accelerated the shift in the centre of gravity within the European Union towards “Mitteleuropa” — Germany and its eastern neighbours, where France’s positions, unlike those of Germany, have never been particularly strong. As a result, the tandem now fully retains its significance for only one participant — Paris, which sees in “special” ties with Berlin an important confirmation of its sovereign status, writes Valdai Club expert Alexei Chikhachev.

The emerging split in relations between France and Germany has been one of the most popular topics for commentators on European politics over the past few weeks. This tandem, which was formalised in 1963 with the signing of the Élysée Treaty, has traditionally positioned itself as the engine of European integration, generating the most significant ideas for subsequent scaling to the entire European Union. Until recently, the duo functioned relatively effectively, as evidenced, in particular, by the adoption of a plan for the recovery of the EU economy after the coronavirus crisis in the amount of more than 750 billion euros as part of a Franco-German initiative.

Local contradictions that inevitably arose between the parties, as a rule, always managed to be varnished with assurances of the inviolability of post-war friendship, direct dialogue between top officials and the signing of new agreements, both complex and sectoral.

By these standards, the situation that developed in bilateral relations in October-November 2022 can be called unprecedented. Olaf Scholz’s visit to Paris took place amid an unusually cold atmosphere and did not end with a joint press conference. The next general meeting of governments was postponed, after which the chancellor went to China on his own, and not accompanied by Emmanuel Macron, as the latter suggested.

Although it would be premature to announce the final collapse of the tandem, it is worth stating that behind the external manifestations of misunderstanding there is already a fairly significant array of contradictions that have accumulated to date. As a result, both France and Germany are faced with the need to look for new points of support within the EU, choosing alternative interlocutors in addition to each other.

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Main groups of contradictions

The extent of the current differences between Paris and Berlin is demonstrated by the fact that they are built around at least three major themes, on which different points of view are expressed by each country.

First, in the context of the unfolding fuel crisis, there is no unity regarding the priorities of the EU’s energy policy. It should not be forgotten that the parties are in different starting conditions: if France, which currently relies on a combination of nuclear and alternative power generation, is in principle less dependent on hydrocarbons and Russian gas in particular, then for Germany, supply interruptions pose a direct threat in terms of the sustainability of the entire economy. From here, the French leadership can strive to at least partially continue the “green course” within the EU, more easily agreeing to the introduction of threshold prices for Russian oil and gas, while for their German counterparts, the priority is to replace shortfall energy sources as soon as possible, even at the cost of non-compliance with environmental indicators.

A clear illustration of this difference in estimates was that of the MidCat Iberian gas pipeline project. Like Madrid, Berlin sees it as a way to speed up the transfer of fuel delivered from Algeria and the United States to the continent, but Paris emphasises that building an interconnector will still not solve the problem of dependence on external supplies and will further complicate achieving carbon neutrality.

Second, the support measures practiced in both countries to help their respective national economies have become a reason for mutual accusations. The French leadership, not without fear, criticised the decision of Olaf Scholz to allocate about 200 billion euros to help German enterprises, believing that they would find themselves in too favourable competitive conditions compared to businesses on the other side of the Rhine. According to the Elysée Palace, there is a discrepancy between statements and actions on the part of Berlin, because unilateral support for the social market economy of Germany is accompanied by constant requirements for other EU members to comply with budget savings rules. Scholz’s November trip to Beijing only fuelled this controversy, as it was perceived as a signal of readiness to accept Chinese investment (also in light of the sale of a stake in the port of Hamburg), while Paris raises the issue of EU strategic autonomy in critical sectors. There is also dissatisfaction in the opposite direction, because the hopes nurtured by Berlin since 2017 that Emmanuel Macron will “restart” the French economy with its chronic budget deficit have not yet fully materialised. The leadership of the Fifth Republic, following the traditions of dirigisme, is even more actively applying similar measures to stimulate the economy, for which they themselves criticise Germany (the “France-2030” investment plan etc.), so far with unclear results.

Third, defence tech issues are becoming the subject of ever more obvious differences. In the context of the aggravation of the Ukrainian conflict, the German leadership has decided to allocate an additional 100 billion euros to strengthen the Bundeswehr, thereby outlining the “change of eras” (Zeitenwende) — a sharp intensification of its defence and, as a result, foreign policy for the first time after the Second World War. Paris, still convinced of the urgency of complementing NATO with pan-European defence potential, would like these funds to be used to develop promising joint projects like the FCAS aircraft and the MGCS tank. However, in reality, as French experts note to their regret, Berlin has chosen in favour of equipment that can be ordered right now, first of all, American F-35 fighters, Patriot air defence systems, etc. and cooperation with France has faded into the background. When, in his August speech at Charles University, Olaf Scholz proposed the idea of ​​​​creating a “European air defence system,” the states of Central, Eastern and Northern Europe were named as primary partners, but by no means the Fifth Republic, despite its developed missile industry.

Moreover, the very idea of ​​the Franco-German duo as the driving force of European integration was completely ignored in Scholz’s speech, which eloquently indicates the loss of the original meaning of the tandem. If at the time of the signing of the Elysée Treaty, Paris still had the opportunity to claim conditional leadership in terms of a set of parameters, then after the unification of Germany, a clear “division of labour” was established: the diplomatic activity of the Fifth Republic was balanced by the economic power of the FRG. Now this balance is also being upset, since the Zeitenwende assumes the unification of European leadership in German hands, both in political and economic terms. The conflict in Ukraine has accelerated the shift in the centre of gravity within the European Union towards “Mitteleuropa” — Germany and its eastern neighbours, where France’s positions, unlike those of Germany, have never been particularly strong.

As a result, the tandem now fully retains its significance for only one participant — Paris, which sees in “special” ties with Berlin an important confirmation of its sovereign status.

Are there alternatives?

The uneven value of this duo in the eyes of the participants becomes quite obvious, if one determines what other opportunities Paris and Berlin currently have outside of relations with each other. In the case of Germany, the further line of action is more or less traceable: the foreign policy “awakening”, albeit promoted by the Chancellor very carefully and with many reservations, in the future may allow Berlin to take a more proactive position within the EU and NATO. The main focus of interests will be directed to the north-eastern borders of the European Union — Poland, the Baltic States, and Finland, which, coupled with continued military assistance to Ukraine, will lead to an ever greater “Atlanticisation” of the German strategy. The role of an unofficial patron of the new EU members in the Western Balkans is also possible, when and if such an expansion occurs. In a broader sense, the beginning of the Zeitenwende also implies its own approach to the Indo-Pacific (above all, a noticeable reluctance to seek confrontation with the PRC), as well as an expansion of the range of interests in Sub-Saharan Africa.  Nevertheless, it will still be difficult for Berlin to completely do without the support of the Fifth Republic, because the systematic disregard of its interests will make even the appearance of unity in the European Union impossible. Besides, the set of French military-political tools in the Indo-Pacific and in the African theatre is still more diverse than that of Germany.

For France itself, the situation seems to be somewhat more tense, since it is impossible to find an adequate replacement for relations with Germany in its immediate environment. Earlier, Emmanuel Macron had already tried to create an alternative axis of European politics, having achieved the signing of a “big treaty” with Italy (the Quirinal Treaty of 2021). However, since then, a right-wing government has come to power in Rome, which, although it declares its full commitment to solidarity within the EU is just beginning to pass strength tests. Contacts with other countries of Southern Europe — Spain, Portugal, Greece — even together cannot be compared in importance with the German direction, while in the eyes of the “frugal four” (Austria, Denmark, Sweden, the Netherlands) Paris is pursuing an insufficiently effective budget course. For most Eastern European states, dialogue with France is unproductive due to its allegedly too “pro-Russian” position (Emmanuel Macron’s attempts to maintain contact with the Kremlin) and, accordingly, insignificant assistance to Ukraine compared to Germany. Another candidate for the role of a counterbalance to Berlin — Britain — formally remains the strategic partner of the French side under the Lancaster House Treaties of 2010, but also deals with complex domestic and foreign political difficulties. All this suggests that without a “special” dialogue with Germany, France, if not isolated in today’s Europe, it will have much less room to manoeuvre than it has now.

The aforementioned facts allow us to assert that the internal dynamics of the tandem is clearly becoming unbalanced, which is expressed in a growing bias in favour of Germany. During his second term in office, Emmanuel Macron will have to respond to the German Zeitenwende by commensurately increasing military capabilities, responding with new diplomatic initiatives and trying to overcome difficulties in his own economy. Nevertheless, it is hardly worth expecting the competition between France and Germany for European leadership to correspond to the best examples of Realpolitik of the 19th-20th centuries. Despite the current tensions, the accumulated force of inertia is still too great for Paris and Berlin to sharply move away from each other, especially since they are in the institutional framework of the EU and NATO, where their positions will eventually be brought to a common denominator. Whether this is true or not, January 2023 will reveal whether the 60th anniversary of the Elysée Treaty will be celebrated on both banks of the Rhine.

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