What Is the Future for the French-German Engine?

A few weeks before the German federal election, chancellor candidates from the two establishment parties, Olaf Scholz of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and Armin Laschet of Christian Democratic Union (CDU), paid a highly symbolic visit to President Emmanuel Macron in the Elysée palace, signaling the importance of French-German relations for both countries. The historical importance of the French-German tandem for Europe is well known. Most of the recent progress on the European integration has been the result of a compromise between Paris and Berlin, as recently witnessed by the historic agreement on the European recovery plan.

Paris and Berlin form an uncomfortable couple nonetheless, especially when it comes to security and defense. Misaligned geopolitical interests, historical trauma, and distinct political cultures have always been hurdles in French-German cooperation. Yet, the success of Europe’s strategic ambitions relies on a fruitful partnership between Paris and Berlin. One can even argue that the differences and divergences between both countries make their cooperation even more robust and lasting once they reach common ground.

As German politics are now entering a long phase of complicated, three-party coalition building, reflecting on the strengths and limitations of the French-German engine is timely. With Chancellor Angela Merkel leaving power after 16 years in the office, Paris and Berlin will need to find a new modus vivendi to continue moving forward.

So Different . . .

French-German cooperation on security and defense has always been a challenging task given the many differences between the two countries. Paris and Berlin have very distinct political systems and cultures, making any collaboration arduous. Limited by its own constitutional rules and societal demands, which are themselves the product of history, Germany has often been reluctant to intervene militarily alongside France, especially in high-intensity operations. Combined with the low readiness of German armed forces, this restraint on defense has led Paris to favor other European partners when responding to sensitive crises in Europe’s neighborhood be it in Libya, the Sahel, or the Strait of Hormuz.

Both countries have faced similar challenges when it comes to armament procurement. Since 2017, Paris and Berlin have embarked on a major industrial journey to develop jointly the next generation of their fighter aircrafts and battle tanks. These projects have nonetheless experienced some turbulent periods because of a lack of mutual trust rooted in national differences. The predominant role played by the Bundestag on these issues, Germany’s budget uncertainty year-on-year, and the political sensitivity of arms exports in Germany have unsettled the French authorities more than once and sometimes raised questions about the viability of French-German cooperation. Similarly, both countries have often struggled to agree on common designs given their differing operational needs, as experienced with the Tiger combat helicopter or the Eurodrone program

France and Germany have also had diverging views on some foreign policy issues. Often, Paris and Berlin have disagreed on the best way to respond to the growing assertiveness of regional powers in Europe’s vicinity, as recently witnessed in the eastern Mediterranean. As tensions escalated between Turkey and Greece in the summer of 2020, Berlin favored a more conciliatory approach while Paris decided to confront Ankara more directly. Germany’s approach on China, mainly driven by geoeconomic interests, has also been somewhat at odds with France’s hardening stance toward Beijing in the Indo-Pacific region, where Paris has more direct national interests with its overseas territories.

. . . Yet So Close

Despite these dissonances, Paris and Berlin have managed to combine their strength to play a driving role in European integration on security and defense, especially with the United Kingdom out of the European Union. Brexit has added further pressure on the French-German security relationship to succeed. Both countries understood that a joint approach on these issues was paramount given the sheer size of their economy and military as well as their political centrality. Even though Paris and Berlin sometimes disagree over the rhetoric of “strategic autonomy,” they have come to the same pragmatic conclusion on the need for Europe to do more for its own security. In a November 2020 joint op-ed for the Washington Post, the French and German foreign ministers underlined that promoting a stronger Europe and building a more balanced transatlantic partnership were “two sides of the same coin.”

This convergence has been made possible thanks to a strong culture of dialogue between both capitals. Building on the Elysée Treaty of 1963, the Aachen Treaty on “French-German cooperation and integration” signed in January 2019 has provided both partners a framework to act together more closely. Joined by their defense and foreign affairs ministers, the French president and the German chancellor regularly meet at the French-German defense and security council, which has been an instrumental body in steering the bilateral partnership. German and French officials constantly coordinate their positions in the European Union, at NATO, or at the United Nations, either bilaterally or in larger formats such as the E3 (with the United Kingdom) or the Quad (with the United States and the United Kingdom).

Paris and Berlin have therefore been able to spearhead major European defense and security initiatives. French-German support has been decisive for the establishment of recent EU tools designed to spur industrial or operational collaboration among member states, notably the European defense fund or the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO). Both partners have also been closely working together in the Sahel, through joint stabilization and development initiatives as well as an increased engagement of the German military in the UN and EU missions. France and Germany have also played a driving role in the definition of a European approach for the Indo-Pacific region, building on the French and German converging strategies.

Finding a Second Wind

Admittedly, French-German collaboration will necessarily stall during the governmental formation phase in Germany and the onset of the French presidential election campaign. Once a coalition is formed however, keeping the momentum in the bilateral partnership will be paramount as EU and NATO agendas will be quite loaded in the coming months. The European Union is shaping its security and defense priorities for the next decade in its first white book, also known as the “strategic compass.” This document is expected to be adopted in March 2022 under France’s presidency of the European Union. NATO allies have also agreed to update the strategic concept of the alliance in time for the Madrid summit mid-2022. French authorities will be all the more keen to quickly rekindle French-German cooperation as its EU rotating presidency is approaching. This presidency will take place in the first half of 2022, ahead of France’s elections in April.

France and Germany will nonetheless need to agree on some essential conditions for success beforehand. Whatever the German coalition is, France will need Germany to continue increasing its defense spending notably to make sure that their joint armament projects are sufficiently funded. This could be a vexing issue as the SPD and the Greens have been either ambiguous or opposed to NATO’s goal of spending 2 percent of GDP on defense. Similarly, Paris will seek legal and political clarity from Berlin on industrial programs, which will take decades to be completed. Having visibility over these projects will be key, as they will deliver critical assets—fighter jets, battle tanks—for both countries’ armed forces (plus Spain for the aircraft program).

Finally, Paris and Berlin should be mindful of not considering their bilateral relationship in a vacuum. To succeed, both countries need to keep actively engaging with other European partners. Any ambitious EU-wide initiatives require support across Europe. Both countries should therefore invest in formats such as the Weimar group with Poland or the EU4 with Spain and Italy. Larger and flexible frameworks such as the European Intervention Initiative or the PESCO should also serve as venues for France and Germany to engage with other European countries on industrial or operational issues.

As Germany turns the page on the Merkel years, the French-German partnership will need to continue to move on. From transatlantic security to the stability of the Sahel and the strategic competition with Russia and China, Paris and Berlin have much work to do. Finding common ground might be a challenging task but both countries are well aware of the importance of their partnership. As stressed by President Macron in 2017, “We will not agree on everything, or straightaway, but we will discuss everything. To those who say that is an impossible task, I reply: you may be used to giving up; I am not.”

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

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Pierre Morcos

Pierre Morcos

Former Visiting Fellow, Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program