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Franco-German Couple: Duo-Duel at the Helm of the European Union

Franco-German Couple: Duo-Duel at the Helm of the European Union
 Joseph de Weck
Senior Fellow - Germany

Emmanuel Macron's state visit to Germany, initially planned for July 2023 but postponed due to riots in France, is scheduled for May 26-28. This visit, the first by a French president since Jacques Chirac in 2000, aims to reaffirm the commitment of Paris and Berlin to democracy and honor the ties between their peoples, especially the youth, ahead of the Euro and the Olympic Games. Despite shared geopolitical and economic challenges, Franco-German relations have deteriorated. Upcoming elections and issues like free-trade agreements, nuclear energy, and debt management highlight the need for solidarity. This article by Joseph de Weck explores the priorities and challenges in this crucial EU partnership, as well as the way German domestic constraints affect the bilateral relationship.

What makes a state visit different from a regular trip? Why are they uncommon and what purpose do they serve?

State visits differ from ordinary trips in that they are not focused on a specific topic or solely involve meetings between heads of state. Instead, they celebrate the relationship between the two countries and encourage genuine engagement with the host country’s civil society.

State visits differ from ordinary trips.

French President Emmanuel Macron will spend three days in Germany, underscoring the importance he places on the Franco-German friendship just before the June European Parliament elections.

He will be welcomed by President Steinmeier and although he is expected to meet with Olaf Scholz, the highlight of his visit will be his speech in Dresden, likely delivered in German, aimed at the German people. What proposals will President Macron present to the Germans? How will he persuade them of his European vision? It is worth noting that the President’s itinerary includes Berlin, then Dresden, in eastern Germany, and finally Münster, in a western Land, emphasizing his desire to address the entire German nation.

How do you assess recent developments in the Franco-German relationship?

Franco-German relations have seen better days, and the war in Ukraine has sparked several disagreements.

The first disagreement concerns the objective to pursue in Ukraine: Germany's main concern is that if Russia perceives itself as close to defeat, it could become more dangerous.This would reinforce Russia’s view of the conflict as an existential war that threatens its survival as a nation. A Moscow pushed to the brink would then present an increased risk of nuclear escalation.

Paris, which benefits from its own nuclear strike capability, believes that if Russia is not defeated, it will threaten Europe again as soon as its forces have been rebuilt, within a two to three-year horizon.
Secondly, there are broader divergences regarding the interpretation of the war’s consequences for European defense: the Germans see the war in Ukraine as confirming the crucial importance of the Americans and NATO. For the French, it demonstrates that in the future, Europe can no longer rely solely on the United States for defense against a revisionist Russia.

Lastly, Paris and Berlin operate on different timelines. The Germans focus on immediate short-term concerns (avoiding escalation today, acknowledging our current dependency on the United States today), while the French are positioned for a medium-term view (working towards greater independence from Washington tomorrow by investing in the European security apparatus, preventing a recurrence of Kremlin aggression).

These differing timelines correspond to the respective electoral calendars of the two leaders: Emmanuel Macron, not needing to consider re-election, prioritizes his European agenda, while Olaf Scholz must secure short-term compromises to maintain his coalition whose heterogeneity - the Social Democratic Party (SPD), the Liberal Democratic Party (FDP) and the Greens - makes vulnerable.

How do the German coalition’s vulnerabilities affect Berlin's relations with the EU and specifically with France?

The French and German political landscape are very different. The French regime, already centralized, is further strengthened by Emmanuel Macron's "hyper-presidential" approach. French ministers therefore have limited maneuverability compared to their German counterparts, and France's centralization makes it challenging to negotiate with each of the relevant German ministers individually. Relations should be decentralized, making them less dependent on the Élysée, and involving not only the Chancellor but also each of the ministers, who often show greater receptiveness to French ideas than Olaf Scholz. This operational difference hinders the fluidity of Franco-German relations.

Today, the coalition led by Olaf Scholz is fragile: the FDP liberals (third party in the coalition) are struggling in the polls. They are barely at 4%, a significant drop from the 11% they secured in the previous federal elections in 2017. Since a minimum of 5% of the vote is required to win a seat in the Bundestag, the Liberals could face an existential threat in the next elections.

The French and German political landscape are very different. The French regime, already centralized, is further strengthened by Emmanuel Macron's "hyper-presidential" approach.

Unable to risk losing votes, they prioritize issues that mobilize their electorate, such as budgetary rigor. Yet almost all of France's priorities for the EU - more active industrial policy, support for the defense industry and ecological transition - require increased European Union spending.

The prospect of the autumn 2025 elections serves as a kind of end-point that hinders any long-term planning. Emmanuel Macron’s exit strategy could involve conciliating with the center-right, currently in opposition. Perhaps, Friedrich Merz, Party leader of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) could be persuaded of the merits of a debt-financed European fund to support Kyiv. If the CDU accepts this option, the FDP might also come on board.

To what extent has Olaf Scholz's Zeitenwende in February 2022, following the Russian invasion, changed Berlin's relationship with the EU?

The problem is that the Zeitenwende has not significantly changed Berlin's relationship with the EU, while France has revised several of its positions, particularly regarding its support for EU enlargement. Once rather opposed to it, France is now encouraging the accession of countries in the Balkans and Ukraine.

The Germans have remained steadfast in their positions, viewing the war in Ukraine as a confirmation of their general doctrine that relies on the United States for security. While they rhetorically endorse the concept of a sovereign Europe and do spend more on defense, they remain unconvinced that it is both desirable and feasible for Europe to become a pillar of its own defense.

Is the "Weimar triangle" format between Berlin, Warsaw and Paris, with Donald Tusk’s return to power in Poland, an alternative to the Franco-German duo?

In a Europe of 15, the Franco-German duo was a very effective driving force, but now, even when Paris and Berlin agree, it is not enough to bring a project to fruition. The Franco-German compromise often comes at the conclusion, rather than the inception, of a new European initiative. For instance, when it comes to the proposed debt-financed EU fund to support Ukraine, France should try to build a coalition with countries like Poland or Denmark, usually frugal but now threatened by Russia, to convince them. The axis with Warsaw provides an effective support mechanism.

With just weeks to go before the election of Members of the European Parliament, the AfD is flirting with the 20% mark in voting intentions, and even 30% in the eastern Länder. With the party relying on outrage rather than "normalization", what are the links between the French Rassemblement National (RN) and Germany's far-right AfD party?

In recent years, the RN has pursued a policy of "de-demonization," that the AfD has not. Marine le Pen's party is therefore trying to keep its distance from the AfD and separate from a program considered too radical, despite both far-right parties being part of the same group in the European Parliament, Identity and Democracy, until now. The RN, which had already asked the AfD to clarify its stance on its highly controversial "remigration" plan presented in November 2023, has announced via Alexandre Loubet, Jordan Bardella's campaign director, that the RN would not form a parliamentary group with the AfD in the next term of office, formalizing the split between the two parties.

In recent years, the RN has pursued a policy of "de-demonization," that the AfD has not.

The AfD has seen a decline in the polls: while they were nearing 21% in autumn 2023, they now are at 17%, perceived as too radical by voters wary of some leaders' close ties with Russia or China and the neo-Nazi affiliations of certain members. While the RN has carried out purges against its most controversial members, the AfD is now being haunted by its past.

How does Germany view the possibility of Donald Trump's re-election?

Germany sees itself as dependent on the American nuclear umbrella, so it is likely that they will respond to Donald Trump's demand to "pay their fair share for defense". If Donald Trump returns to the White House in 2025, the Germans will find ways to purchase more American defense equipment and increase their military spending. This will further increase tensions with France, which believes it is more urgent to prioritize European investments.

On the economic and trade front, Donald Trump is expected to pursue a rather aggressive policy and impose a duty of at least 10% on all imports from all countries. Although Germany's economic relations with China are often talked about, the United States remains its biggest export market and leading trade partner. The prospect of a trade war with the United States, in a context where the German economy has been weakened and stagnant since 2019, is worrisome. Industry, the engine of growth, has still not returned to its pre-pandemic level, and if an American shock adds to the Chinese shock, Germany will struggle even more.

The Wise Men Council, a group of five economists advising the government, lowered its growth forecasts on May 15 in its Spring Economic Report. Is there a risk that Germany's poor economic health could weigh down European growth?

This is already the case. The weakness of the German economy is affecting many European countries. Germany’s automotive industry relies on subcontractors in Eastern Europe, who suffer directly from the lack of German exports. When the German economy stagnates, it drags the entire European economy down, as the latter accounts for 25% of the whole EU economy.

Looking specifically at France, the Baromètre de l'attractivité de la France (France's attractiveness barometer), recently published by EY, reveals that Germany is the second-largest foreign investor in France, with 183 completed projects by 2023, just behind the United States. The interdependence of our economies is considerable.

The rules for public debt in Germany are very strict, and were further tightened by the German Constitutional Court in November 2023, to the point where even the IMF considers them too stringent, and the 27 EU members are concerned about the recessionary risk they pose to the EU. How can we understand the difference in budgetary philosophy between France and Germany? What are its consequences?

In Germany, the attitude toward debt is cultural. Debt is minimized at all levels: households, corporates and the government. For instance, the homeownership rate is significantly higher in France (63.4% vs. 46.5%), because Germans are wary of debt. When a German politician says that debt should be avoided, it resonates intuitively with voters. This can be traced to the Protestant roots of Luther's homeland, for whom money should be earned by the sweat of one's brow, and view financial speculation and investment with suspicion. It is telling that the words "debt" (Schulden) and "fault" (Schuld) are related.

Beyond this cultural and almost moral explanation, we can also refer to economic history: Germany experienced periods of default (during the Reparations between 1920 and 1933) with violent inflation and devastating consequences. The link between debt and hyperinflation, while not always entirely accurate, is deeply ingrained in the German collective imagination.

In Germany, the attitude toward debt is cultural. Debt is minimized at all levels: households, corporates and the government.

How did Olaf Scholz welcome Xi Jinping's visit to France, after his solo trip to Beijing in mid-April? What are the areas of agreement between the two countries concerning China?

There is a great convergence of principle between Paris and Berlin regarding China: both countries reject the "new Cold War" narrative in which rivals on either side of the Pacific seek to impose on them. Instead, they consider the world to be multipolar and believe that Europe should not align fully with the United States to avoid bipolarization.

However, given the distinct economic structures on either side of the Rhine, disagreements persist on trade policy issues. France is pushing for a more protectionist agenda in Brussels regarding China. Paris supports the idea of entry taxes on Chinese electric cars, which benefit from substantial subsidies from Beijing, to protect European industry.

The Germans, while noting that their trade deficit with China has been growing for several years, are not ready to align with the French doctrine, and fear the impact of potential Chinese retaliation on their automobile manufacturers. France, on the other hand, is much less dependent on China for its exports. However, we can expect Germany to align with Paris in a few years, as its exports to Beijing decrease.

This Interview was conducted by Hortense Miginiac.
Copyright image : Christoph Soeder / POOL / AFP

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