Rekindling an Essential Relationship: France, Germany, and the Aachen Treaty

The Treaty between the French Republic and the Federal Republic of Germany on French-German Cooperation of January 22, 1963, known as the Élysée Treaty, combined heavy political symbolism with very practical steps for deeper bilateral cooperation between two countries that had gone to war three times during a 70-year period. In signing the treaty and the accompanying declaration in Paris, French President Charles de Gaulle and German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer vowed to lay to rest the “centuries-old rivalry” between France and Germany and create an enduring political framework only 18 years after World War II mad despite their political differences. The substance of the Élysée Treaty which appeared bland and bureaucratic to some at the time would have led only few to predict the success story it would become as the foundation of French-German cooperation, post-World War II reconciliation and friendship, and a major driver of European integration.

On January 22, 2019, German chancellor Angela Merkel and French president Emmanuel Macron met in the German city of Aachen—or Aix-la-Chapelle in French—to sign a new treaty on Franco-German cooperation and integration, which is designed to build on and add to the 1963 Élysée Treaty, to “renew the basis of cooperation” (Merkel) and “open a new chapter” (Macron) for the relationship.

Like its 1963 predecessor, the new treaty was meant to be rich in symbolism, starting with the location for the signature: Aachen is a place of deep historical, political, and cultural importance to Europeans and a symbol of early European unity. In the late eighth century, Aachen was the seat of Charlemagne, King of the Franks and Holy Roman Emperor whose rule extended over most of Western and Central Europe, which united parts of Europe previously under Frankish and Roman rule. Aachen remained the capital of the Holy Roman Empire for centuries and became a symbolic place of peace, as important peace treaties such as those ending the War of Devolution (1667-1668) or the War of the Austrian Succession (1740-1748) were signed in the city. Since 1950, the International Charlemagne Prize of Aachen is awarded annually to an individual from Europe or abroad with special achievements in the service of European unification. In fact, three Americans have won the award: General George C. Marshall, Dr. Henry Kissinger, and President Clinton.

The key underlying principles of the Aachen Treaty are convergence and unity, to be achieved through strong bilateral and multilateral coordination across a broad array of policy areas ranging from foreign and defense policy to economic and social policies, environment, culture, education, transportation, and cross-border cooperation. Both countries expressly vow to develop joint approaches not only at the bilateral but also on European and international levels.

The Treaty has been criticized for its lack of substance and ambition, but, like the 1963 Élysée Treaty, it contains, first and foremost, concrete tools to deepen Franco-German cooperation within Europe, backed up by political commitments in important policy fields. France and Germany commit to:

  • deepen cooperation in matters of European policies, especially on foreign, economic, and security policy as well as the European Monetary Union. They seek to coordinate their positions before relevant meetings on the European level.
  • enhance cooperation between their military forces and develop common strategies in terms of military procurement. They vow to strengthen European military capacities and coherence of cooperation and reiterate their commitment to support European initiatives, notably in terms of capability development and defense investment. They seek to develop common approaches in arms export matters for common projects. With the German-French Defense and Security Council, they introduce a new senior-level format to implement these commitments.
  • reaffirm their North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) obligations under Article 5 (“an attack against one is an attack against all”) and Article 42 paragraph 7 (solidarity clause) of the Treaty on the European Union through a bilateral mutual defense clause to assist each other by all available means, including military measures, in case of an armed aggression against their territories. The reference to the NATO charter and the EU treaty underlines the reinforcing nature of the bilateral commitment in support of multilateral alliances.
  • reaffirm their commitment to multilateralism and the UN and pledge to better coordinate their actions in all multilateral bodies like the UN, NATO, and the European Union, for example, through personnel exchanges in the relevant diplomatic missions. They also reiterate support for Germany’s accession to the UN Security Council as a permanent member, as part of the UN Security Council’s larger reform.
  • integrate their economies into a common economic space by aligning regulation and economic policies. The Treaty establishes a Franco-German council of independent economic experts who will provide both governments with recommendations for their economic policies and perspectives for furthering economic convergence.
  • reinforce their cooperation in fighting terrorism and organized crime by conducting joint police training and introducing a joint police unit trained specifically for stabilization missions in third countries.
  • seek closer cooperation between Europe and Africa and step up their coordination in the field of development policies.
  • work together more closely to implement commitments in the field of climate change and sustainability goals.
  • explore greater cooperation in the areas of culture, media, and youth, and establish common cultural institutes abroad.
  • have a member of their governments participate in cabinet meetings of the other country four times per year.
  • establish a special committee of stakeholders from the federal, regional, and local levels, including parliamentarians, to develop a joint strategy for infrastructure and other projects which benefit cross-border regions, and allow local adaptation of regulation to make life or business easier for citizens in the border regions.

Despite the many positive elements of the Aachen Treaty, criticism has been leveled both for what the treaty will (allegedly) do as well as for what it would not do. In France, there were an astonishing number of rumors surrounding the treaty, particularly by members of the far-right who incorrectly claim that the treaty suggests that France could cede or share its seat on the UN Security Council with Germany and could relinquish French sovereignty over Alsace-Lorraine (a major cause of the last three Franco-German wars) to Berlin. Criticism from the broader political spectrum stems from the alleged lack of transparency surrounding the negotiating process, which was perceived to hide major decisions from citizens.

Such criticism can easily be refuted. Support for Germany’s accession to the UN Security Council has been France’s official position for decades. Closer cross-border cooperation and more possibilities for local stakeholders to adapt regulations to local challenges are far from a transfer of sovereignty. And the idea for a follow-up to the Élysée Treaty has been floated since 2012 by former French President Hollande; it was endorsed by both country’s parliaments more than a year ago, with extensive (and public) work being conducted by French and German parliamentarians. The Treaty will also require parliamentary approval by both countries. Nothing very secret here but everything seems to be susceptible to politicization in the current political environment.

Criticism for the treaty’s lack of ambition, especially regarding European integration deserves closer scrutiny, however. In his September 2017 Sorbonne speech on Europe, President Macron included the idea of renewing the 1963 Élysée Treaty as well as ambitious proposals on Europe, especially regarding Eurozone reform (including setting up a Eurozone budget and a Eurozone minister of finance). While some progress has been achieved since then by the European Council to reinforce the Eurozone’s resilience to financial or fiscal crises, Berlin has not responded to the far-reaching French proposals with as much enthusiasm as many integration-friendly voices had hoped, including in Germany. Agreement between Berlin and Paris on more substantial reform of European economic and fiscal policies has been elusive for some time and still appears to be so. While this may be a valid point of criticism, it is not a sound argument against the Aachen Treaty as a bilateral treaty, which can only go so far in putting forward goals of integration that have to be discussed and agreed by all Eurozone Member States.

The merits of the Aachen Treaty will rather have to be considered more indirectly and based on the question of what potential does an enhanced bilateral relationship between France and Germany hold for both parties and then, in turn, for European partners. Can it provide both partners with a framework to act together more closely in a world of more geopolitical instability; of fundamental security threats (ranging from hard military capabilities to terrorism and destabilization efforts); of greater global economic competition in industry, science, and technology; and of accelerating climate change? And can the Aachen Treaty generate enough bilateral energy to spur and support action in the European Union of 28 members (rather than the original 6 members in 1963) to face twenty-first-century challenges?

Three reasons make a good case for the treaty.

First, the Aachen Treaty provides for very concrete instruments to deepen cooperation which are needed to tackle these internal and external challenges.

Second, Germany and France may be the two countries that have traveled the farthest in the shortest period of time to transform their relationship from bitter enemies to close friends. Their reconciliation has been a driver of unity and cooperation in Europe, and the Aachen Treaty could prove significant not only for each of its individual elements but for the stepping stone it could be to enhance an exceptionally successful relationship and friendship even further.

Third, in an age of increasingly populist and nationalistic rhetoric, enhancing cooperation, agreeing on tangible projects, and expressing an unequivocal commitment to Europe and multilateralism is not just symbolical. It constitutes a common political project and upholds a shared vision of foreign policy interests and democratic values which may, yet again, prove to be of great political value in the future. The historic joint French and German presidencies of the UN Security Council, in March and April, will provide a first opportunity to advance this cause.

The ultimate judgement of the treaty will, of course, hinge on the impetus it provides to prepare the two parties and Europe as a whole for future challenges. Certainly, the hard work to implement the treaty begins now, and it will require considerable political investment and willingness to compromise on both sides. But we should not underestimate the strength of concrete and pragmatic steps for cooperation, which is, after all, in Europe’s political DNA, for advancing European integration. Given the success of the Élysée Treaty, let’s not just yet discount the possibility that Paris and Berlin have taken just the right steps at the right time and give the Aachen Treaty the chance it deserves.

Ricklef Beutin and Quentin Lopinot are visiting fellows with the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Ricklef Beutin

Quentin Lopinot