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France-Germany: What Ambition for Europe?

France-Germany: What Ambition for Europe?
 Alexandre Robinet-Borgomano
Senior Fellow - Germany

On the eve of the European Council, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron met in Toulouse on October 16, for a new Franco-German Council of Ministers. Once or twice a year, France and Germany invite their governments for a joint Council of Ministers, aimed at unifying the two countries' decision-making processes, bringing their positions closer together on the European Union and promoting concrete achievements that can give Europe a new impetus. While the last European elections revealed the tensions affecting the Franco-German relationship and the rejection of Sylvie Goulard's candidacy by the European Parliament exposes the European Union to the risk of institutional deadlock, this new joint Council of Ministers had to demonstrate the ability of the Franco-German couple to define a new leadership in Europe. At the very least, it has succeeded in showing that some progress is possible on important points, in the field of trade policy, in the field of defense and mainly in the space sector.

The renewal of trade policy

By choosing to organize the last Franco-German Council of Ministers in Toulouse, France and Germany wished to highlight one of the key successes of their cooperation in the industrial field. As Airbus' headquarters, Toulouse appears to be a symbol of effective Franco-German cooperation capable of leading other Member States, testifying to the ability of both countries to promote "European champions". While the World Trade Organisation (WTO) has just authorized Washington to impose taxes on European products in retaliation for the subsidies granted to Airbus, Toulouse also emerges as the symbol of a Europe at the mercy of a trade war against the United States.

In this tense context, France and Germany reaffirmed in Toulouse their willingness to work within the EU framework to protect and strengthen the multilateral trading system, based on a reformed WTO. By working to improve rules on technology transfer, intellectual property and overcapacity, strengthening monitoring and enforcement mechanisms and establishing a new dispute settlement system, France and Germany aim to empower the WTO to help combat the rise of protectionist measures at the global level.

France and Germany reaffirmed in Toulouse their willingness to work within the EU framework to protect and strengthen the multilateral trading system, based on a reformed WTO.

As Claire Demesmay and Barbara Kunz show in a note on the role of France and Germany in preserving multilateralism, the objectives and procedures of this WTO reform are consensual within the Franco-German couple. However, significant differences emerged during the negotiations of the free trade treaties with Mercosur, notably due to the French President's stated intention to challenge this treaty if Brazil no longer respected the Paris Agreement.

One of the measures put forward by France, which Germany has so far remained reluctant to, is to take better account of environmental standards in the definition of international trade rules. By stating that "both countries are in favour of our trade policy being compatible with the EU's climate policies and their social and environmental dimensions", the Franco-German Council of Ministers reveals a shift in Germany's position, largely due to the recent electoral successes of the Greens. The integration of climate and environmental issues into the definition of European trade policy is one of the main achievements of this new Franco-German Council of Ministers. In concrete terms, France and Germany agree on the examination of ways to implement a carbon tax at Europe's borders compatible with WTO rules and on the principle of introducing a minimum carbon price into the EU's emissions trading system.

Through these measures, France and Germany are giving decisive support to the "Green Pact for Europe" proposed by the new President of the Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, who stated in her programme for Europe last July that "carbon emissions must have a price".

Advances in the field of defense

Over the past five years, European powerlessness has become one of the components of the Syrian crisis. In the face of such evidence, the condemnation in Toulouse by Germany and France of Turkey's current military activities in North-East Syria, as well as Turkey's request to change its policy under its obligations under international humanitarian law, are essentially purely rhetorical. For both Germany and France, the risk that Turkey will open Europe's doors to the migrants and refugees it has retained on its territory under the immigration agreement condemns Europe to inertia. However, the American disengagement and the Turkish offensive emphasize the urgency for Europe to invest in its defense and security resources.

As soon as Barack Obama's term in office ended, Germany began to reflect on its new responsibilities towards the world and gradually acknowledged the need to position itself as a balanced power, so that Europe could become a projection power. Germany's increasing investments in the defense sector (1.5% of its GDP planned for 2024), the implementation of joint armaments projects (Main Ground Combat System and Future Air Combat System) and Germany's accession to the European Intervention Initiative reveal that Germany is gradually moving towards a "Europe of Defense". According to German MP Hans-Peter Bartels (SPD), Parliamentary Commissioner for the Armed Forces (whose book on the German Army and European Defense is due to appear in French in November), cultural differences between the French and German armies are still a major obstacle to the establishment of a genuine European defense. In practice, it is essentially the rigour of Germany's controls on arms exports to countries in crisis that has so far weakened the prospects for European defense.

Following the Khashoggi case in October 2018, Germany unilaterally decided to block its arms exports to Saudi Arabia, including European arms made with German components. As early as the Treaty of Aachen in January 2019, France and Germany recognised the need to develop a common approach to arms exports for joint projects. At the Franco-German Council of Ministers, the two governments announced that the negotiations had resulted in the definition of a binding legal agreement, the final stages of which "should be implemented as soon as possible".

As early as the Treaty of Aachen in January 2019, France and Germany recognised the need to develop a common approach to arms exports for joint projects.

As it stands, this agreement provides that the authorization to export Franco-German tanks and future combat aircraft will be given automatically by the other country, thus restoring the spirit of the Schmidt-Debré agreements signed by the two countries in 1972.

This agreement also provides that Germany will no longer be able to oppose arms exports containing less than a certain percentage of German parts. For German industry, this so-called di minimis clause carries the risk of reducing Germany to the role of junior partner in future armaments projects. Others believe that this harmonisation of arms export control policies should be generalised at a European level. Indeed, after the Netherlands, Germany and France suspended their arms sales in Ankara, the need to develop a common and sovereign approach to non-European powers appears to be a necessity.

Details of the agreement reached between France and Germany on the control of arms exports have not yet been revealed. In principle, however, this agreement makes possible the European Defence Union project defended by the new President of the Commission, in particular through the strengthening of the European Defence Fund to support research and capacity development.

A renewed ambition in the space sector

At the Franco-German Council of Ministers in Toulouse, the two countries stressed the strategic dimension of Europe's independent access to space and supported the principle of European preference for launchers (Ariane 6), where Germany had still tended to use American launchers (SpaceX). This measure must be considered as a step forward, but it only partially fulfils the ambition expressed during the signature of the Treaty of Aachen last January.

The two countries stressed the strategic dimension of Europe's independent access to space and supported the principle of European preference.

The promotion of a common strategy for a more innovative Europe in the new space economy, the establishment of cooperation to increase the competitiveness of the space industry, or the consolidation of Europe's autonomous access to space through major investments in research and development, are promises that are now being erased behind the injunction for industrial actors in the sector to "develop consolidation measures to improve cost control and international competitiveness, in close cooperation with their European partners, notably Italy".

The reduction of this ambition is a clear indication of Germany's reluctance to engage in a genuine European space policy, at a time when the BDI, the powerful federation of German industry, held its Weltraumkongress on October 18 in Berlin to present the implications of space for the economy of the future. It called on the German government to raise its investments in space to the same level as France, to strengthen European strategic autonomy and to address the symbolic dimension of space policy. However, the Franco-German Council of Ministers in Toulouse made it possible to define a common roadmap for the European Space Agency (ESA) ministerial conference to be held next November, during which the two countries are expected to present their plans for a joint robotics mission to the moon, using artificial intelligence to demonstrate the power of European technological leadership.

Finally, the Toulouse Council of Ministers recalled the support of both countries for the establishment of the European Commission's new Directorate-General for Space and Defence Industry, announced in September by Ursula von der Leyen, and which Paris is strongly committed to maintaining in the portfolio of the next French Commissioner.


Given the current institutional crisis in Europe, the Franco-German Council of Ministers could have appeared to be a purely formal exercise. The difficulty of the two countries in achieving a common ambition is thus expressed in the field of artificial intelligence (AI), insofar as the Franco-German centre project for AI is now relegated to the simple networking of national centres and the financing of joint projects. By making some significant progress in strategic areas, this Council has nevertheless demonstrated the ability of the Franco-German couple to lay the foundations for a new European dynamic.

As the European Council of 17th and 18th of October showed, Europe is still largely a "source of misunderstanding" for France and Germany (Luuk van Middelaar). On the question of the enlargement of the European Union to include Albania and Macedonia, on the question of the long-term European budget or the establishment of a stabilisation budget for the euro zone, on the question of the use of the Chinese Huawei to equip Europe with 5G, France and Germany are still far from having agreed on a common position.

However, there is one noteworthy development: at the end of the Council of Ministers, the French President and the German Chancellor received the new President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, in Toulouse. The meeting of the three executives, highly symbolic, perhaps outlines the new European leadership: that of the French and German governments seeking to overcome their differences to move forward on concrete projects in order to support the strategic agenda of the future Commission.


Copyright : Guillaume HORCAJUELO / POOL / AFP

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