3 QUESTIONS – The French-German tandem loses steam

The author is manager for the TRT World Research Center, an Istanbul-based research and policy institute attached to TRT World, Türkiye’s English-language national broadcaster.


Long seen as the engines of European unity, what happens when fissures appear between the EU powerhouses of Germany and France? Below, writing for Anadolu's Analysis Department, foreign policy expert Tarek Cherkaoui analyzes the turbulent relations between Paris and Berlin on the 60th anniversary of the Elysee Treaty between the two.

What is the state of Franco-German relations?

On Jan. 22, French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz met in Paris to celebrate 60 years of the landmark 1963 Elysee Treaty, which is the foundation for the strong relationship between France and Germany.

However, relations between the two sides are presently going through a period of turbulence. The postponement of the Franco-German Council of Ministers, planned for last October, was a clear sign of that. Macron and Scholz did have a business lunch, but the lack of a joint press conference made this meeting one of the iciest [1] in recent history.

The two governments exchanged several low blows. For example, the German chancellor barely [2] mentioned France in his speech on the European Union in Prague, the Czech Republic (then EU term president) last August. In its plans for European Union enlargement, Berlin aimed [3] to have a union with “30 or 36 members,” a goal not shared by Paris. Similarly, Macron voiced multiple veiled criticisms of Berlin.

As a result, the public feels this tension, with 36% of French respondents and 39% of Germans telling [4] pollster Ipsos this January that bilateral relations are suffering.

What obstacles are impeding bilateral relations?

Germany and France are on opposing sides on a rather long list of topics. Three areas top the list: Energy, defense, and foreign policy. Concerning energy, both countries have grievances about each other’s selfish policies. Berlin negotiated a gas deal with Spain to be delivered via pipelines across French territory. Paris refused [5] point blank, signing a separate agreement [6] with Madrid and Lisbon to establish an underwater pipeline to deliver energy from Barcelona to the port city of Marseille.

Berlin also offered €200 billion ($217 billion) in state aid to confront the energy crisis. This package [7], which shielded German firms and families from soaring energy bills, drew a slew of criticism [8] from Paris and other European capitals, which were hoping the German state would provide the lion’s share to an EU package.

Concerning defense, the Russia-Ukraine war has turned Germany’s strategic outlook upside down. After World War II, Germany adopted Washington’s security umbrella, which allowed Berlin to build a strong economy. On the other hand, France, the only nuclear-armed state in the EU, likes to consider itself the main guarantor of EU security. However, the Russia-Ukraine war confirmed that without Washington’s military aid, Russian tank columns would have cut across Ukraine like a hot knife through butter.

Meanwhile, the Bundeswehr is in a dire state, plagued [9] by ageing material, low budgets, and excruciating slow procurement. Hence, Chancellor Scholz announced a special €100 billion fund to upgrade its armed forces swiftly. Again, Macron hoped these budgets would go to French industry. But Berlin opted for US systems, like F-35 fighter jets. The latter are nuclear-capable [10] and offer more NATO interoperability.[11] Still, Macron did intense lobbying. Consequently, Scholz conceded and accepted the French proposals on the next-gen FCAS fighters. One analyst described [12] the agreement as a “French victory, a German capitulation.”

In addition, the sides also diverge over the Ukraine war. Both sides broadly agree that Ukraine needs support but not at the cost of totally alienating Russia. Scholz is facing the ire of the White House for stalling sending advanced German tanks to Kyiv. Macron seems to have taken a harder rhetoric.

What are the prospects for this relationship?

Macron does not have a parliamentary majority and presides over an ever-more pessimistic country. The French president is unpopular at home, with French unions and opposition figures mobilizing [13] against his controversial pension reforms.

In the meantime, the Russia-Ukraine war exposed numerous German bureaucratic frailties. Several high-level German officials have been compromised [14] or deemed to be spying [15] for Russia. Following a long trail of blunders, the resignation this month of Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht revealed cracks within Scholz’s coalition. Moreover, the German chancellor’s promise to re-arm the German army is facing considerable snags. Many experts are skeptical about how decades of neglect of the military institution could be reversed quickly.

Since both Macron and Scholz face difficulties at home, they will seek to score some points in foreign policy. On Jan. 20 they penned a joint op-ed in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung daily signaling their alignment towards the EU enlargement process. Therefore, the two counterparts will likely iron out many of their tactical differences.

What they cannot do, however, is undo geostrategic realities. The European project moved ahead for decades thanks to two powerful economic engines: Germany and France. In the 1980s, West Germany’s economy was slightly larger than France’s, but not by a wide margin. Moreover, French economic growth, at times, exceeded Germany’s. Presently, the gap has grown striking.[16] Germany’s GDP is 30% higher than France, and Germany’s $1.46 trillion export revenues are three times [17] more than France’s.

Given the French decline over time, Germany does not want to become the main engine carrying the entire EU vessel without reviewing terms and conditions. It is this reality that French leaders refuse to acknowledge, multiplying petty maneuvers to delay the inevitable.

Source: Anadolu Agency