Rebooting the Franco-German Engine

The “Franco-German engine” is an expression that gained traction in Europe during the second half of the twentieth century. It describes the powerful momentum that is formed for European integration when France and Germany are working in concert. Starting with Charles de Gaulle and Konrad Adenauer’s signing of the Élysée Treaty in 1963, subsequent leaders of the two countries developed a pattern of finding compromises despite their sometimes profound differences to move Europe forward.

In the twenty-first century, German chancellor Angela Merkel proved to be the beacon of stability for the “couple,” working with four French presidents (Jacques Chirac, Nicolas Sarkozy, Francois Hollande, and Emmanuel Macron). The Macron-Merkel tandem experienced the most serious challenges—from Donald Trump’s hostility and Brexit to the Covid-19 pandemic. Despite these tests and a difference in approaches, the engine managed to steer Europe through this turbulent period and proved to be a driving force to reform and modernize both the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

But the engine has recently been put to a test of another scale with the war in Ukraine, which hit both countries where it hurts. For France, it shed light on the absence of results of President Macron’s policy of engagement with Vladimir Putin. For Germany, it revealed that trade-driven engagement with Russia and China had become a major liability. The two countries also bear the burden of the failure of the Minsk peace agreements between Russia and Ukraine, which were overseen by both Paris and Berlin. Moreover, their respective responses to the war, touted as too lenient on Russia and not strong enough in support to Ukraine, unleashed fierce criticism from many partners, notably from central and Eastern Europe.

On top of it, the war erupted at a time when Germany just completed the formation of its new coalition and while France was just beginning its presidential electoral campaign. Thus, it has been difficult to establish a chemistry for the post-Merkel era. While Paris and Berlin have made efforts, so far, the results seem to be rather mixed.

A stalled Franco-German engine is not good news for Europe nor the United States. Like it or not, the two countries will remain the economic, military, and demographic powerhouses of Europe and their joint leadership is inevitably required to move Europe forward. This is all the more important at a time when the new UK government led by Liz Truss may be on a collision course with the European Union over Northern Ireland and when Italy has a new more EU-skeptic government. Any U.S. approach to Europe—be it pivoting or empowering—needs a functioning France and Germany working in tandem.

The Ukraine Conundrum

The first challenge that both leaders must overcome is the reputational damage from their responses to the war on Ukraine. To be fair, if the response to the war was measured with comprehensive metrics, including military, financial, humanitarian, asylum, and legal support to Ukraine, as well as involvement with issues such as the food crisis, nuclear safety, and military reinforcements in the eastern flank (notably in Romania and Lithuania), France and Germany would probably not fare badly. But they have both been laggards in the two things that count the most in wartimes: military supplies and strategic communication.

Both leaders are aware of the dire situation. But they are also grappling with structural difficulties to reverse the tide. First, at the operational level, the German Bundeswehr is in notoriously bad shape. After decades of underinvestment, it needs to replenish rather than empty the shelves of its military kit. Meanwhile, the French army, which emphasized the projection of forces abroad to conduct military interventions, woke up to a conventional war in Europe and has found itself short in stocks of ammunition for high-intensity warfare. Second, at the strategic level, both leaders share the vision that in the longterm, Europe must be able to coexist with its greatest neighbor, given that Russia will always be part of Europe. However sensible this is conceptually, such rhetoric is tone-deaf in wartime.

Scholz and Macron’s Strategic Visions: Convergences and Nuances

Beyond Ukraine, the two countries’ leadership is needed to transform European defense landscape and make it future proof to any U.S. trajectory. France has traditionally spearheaded efforts to build a stronger and more integrated Europe in this domain. But the zeitenwende (new era) heralded by Chancellor Olaf Scholz was meant to announce the advent of a more responsible and proactive Germany. The first-ever German National Security Strategy, which is in the making, is also set to put forward the concept of führungsmacht (driving force) for Europe.

Paris should consider Berlin’s ambition as an opportunity to accelerate its own goals for Europe rather than a challenge to its own preeminence. After all, Chancellor Olaf Scholz has embraced many of President Macron’s strategic concepts, be it “European sovereignty,” a term first coined by him in his famous speech on Europe at Paris’s Sorbonne University in 2017, or the European Political Community, introduced in May by the French president. This new platform will serve as a forum in which all European leaders convene to discuss key issues that affect the continent, as well as support institutional reforms, such as the expansion of qualified majority in the European Union’s Common Foreign Security Policy.

But to be reassured about Germany’s seriousness in serving as a driving force for Europe, it first requires Germany to “drive European.” Thus far, the “special fundof 100 billion euros for defense announced in February is set to benefit mostly the United States and Israel, prompting President Macron to say that “if Europeans spend more, it is not to buy outside of Europe.” The German National Security Strategy is also set to reaffirm NATO as the prime venue for European defense. If the latter is hardly contestable, Germany has tended to rest too heavily on NATO for policy guidance and capability planning, perhaps at the expenses of a serious national reflection on how to reform the Bundeswehr.

The other issues on which the two countries do not see eye to eye reflect nuanced differences rather than significant divergences. These include transatlantic relations, with France a historical champion of “strategic autonomy” vis-à-vis the United States, a penchant only reinforced by the Donald Trump mandate and not fully reversed by the Biden administration, mainly because of the AUKUS drama. For Germany, the Donald Trump experience has been traumatic. It opened Berlin’s eyes on its dependence on a potentially unreliable United States (hence Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s Prague speech, “Europe Is Our Future” on August 29) but it has not resulted in significant action to reduce such dependence. France and Germany also have different approaches to China and the U.S.-China competition, with President Macron being increasingly tough on China but equally staunch in defending nonalignment with the United States on the matter. Germany meanwhile does the splits, refraining both to distance itself from the U.S. positions and to get tougher on China. France and Germany also have had differing views on the pace of EU enlargement, Berlin being generally more open than France, and on Turkey, whose policies are regularly criticized strongly by Paris while Berlin opts for a softer stance.

Lack of Steam in the Bilateral Relationship

While differences of visions are surmountable, the main impediment may lie in the lack of appetite to work in tandem, notably from Berlin. Whereas President Macron’s speech to French ambassadors on September 1 included a flurry of mentions of Franco-German achievements, Chancellor Scholz did not mention any in his Prague speech four days earlier.

On the most pressing issue, energy, France among other European capitals have been angered by Germany’s announcement of its own 200 billion euros support package that could distort competition for gas supplies this winter. Both countries agreed to supply each other during the winter (gas versus electricity) but relations are also soured by the French reluctance to extend the MidCat pipeline coming from Spain up to Germany, as requested by Berlin to address its gas issues.

The bilateral industrial cooperation is also plagued by the absence of progress on flagship projects such as the Future Combat Air System (FCAS, jointly developed by Dassault and Airbus Aviation) and the Main Ground Combat System (MGCS, jointly developed by Rheinmetall and Nexter). If the issues are mainly related to relations between manufacturers, the political will has also been questionable. The recent recommitment to deliver on FCAS by the two ministers of defense when they met on September 22 is good news, but the recipe to overcome current hurdles remains to be known.

What It Takes to Reboot

In a historical moment for Europe, it is high time for an overhaul of the Franco-German engine. Both sides of the Atlantic need to take steps to ensure it has the following characteristics:

  1. The engine should lead on Ukraine. Germany has been delivering military support only when under immense pressure, while France has somehow avoided scrutiny while delivering less. Instead of being badgered to give more, both should get out in front of Ukraine’s requests and send a signal that they are strongly committed to a Ukrainian victory. Ukrainian requests for armored vehicles and battle tanks have been rendered even more urgent by the Russian mobilization, and this might be the last window of opportunity for the two countries to step up and tap in their stocks of Leopard, Marder, or Leclerc tanks.
    This should be accompanied by a communication offensive. President Macron should have learned that poorly chosen words (such as “humiliation” or “warmongers”) in such inflammatory contexts can erase the benefits of otherwise well-articulated speeches. His widely praised address at the UN General Assembly might be a sign that some lessons have been learned.

  2. The engine should begin with a healthy bilateral relationship. The next session of the bilateral council (the Franco-German Ministers Council) on October 26 will be instrumental in this regard. As the first summit since the beginning of the war, it cannot afford to be a business-as-usual meeting.
  3. The engine should deliver. Jointly developed military projects cannot wither on the vine. EU efforts to stimulate collaborative projects will struggle to advance if France and Germany do not lead by example. This will require injecting political weight into the balance to force the hands of industry to find a way to work together.
  4. The engine should be able to rally other Europeans behind an ambitious agenda. A new high-level meeting in the trilateral “Weimar format” with Poland, which is one of the most critical partners could prove useful in the effort to bridge the gap with central and Eastern Europe.

The first meeting of the new European Political Community, due to convene on October 6 in Prague, will also be an important test. Initially criticized as a waiting room for Ukraine and Moldova to distract from EU membership, the prospect has since gathered momentum as a format that allows to bring together all Europeans, regardless of their participation to NATO or the European Union, to discuss common concerns.

All in all, it will be a busy and decisive winter for Macron and Scholz to make sure that the engine of Europe does not sputter.

Mathieu Droin is a visiting fellow in the Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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Mathieu Droin
Visiting Fellow, Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program