French President Emmanuel Macron, taking office in the spring of 2017, outlined one of the most important foreign policy tasks of his reign to build a “new partnership” between Berlin and Paris. Now, with just over a year left before the expiration of the French leader’s presidential term, and literally a few months before the election of a new Federal Chancellor of Germany, we can safely say that the plan to build long-term and close cooperation between leading European states has failed.
The contrast between the ambitious, often impatient Macron and the experienced, usually prudent Merkel, evident in the superficial comparison of the two leaders, hides the real and deeper reasons for the differences, which even the 2019 Aachen Cooperation Agreement did not help to overcome. Berlin and Paris perceive structural changes in international relations differently and, as a result, see different global orientations in foreign policy.
During his presidential campaign, Macron extended his hand to the German federal government, stating that “the renewal of the European Union is possible only through close cooperation between Berlin and Paris.” A few days after the parliamentary elections in Germany in September 2017, in his speech at the Sorbonne, the French leader outlined the so-called course of a new partnership between the two states.
After several years, at the Munich Security Conference held in February 2020, after the French President made reproaches to official Berlin, it became clear that it was not possible to achieve a “new cooperation”. The criticism touched upon issues of European integration and contained calls for greater EU autonomy. On the topic of “strategic autonomy”, Macron argued in November 2020 with German Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer. The responsibility for the failure of the program proposed by the French President and for the insufficient Franco-German cooperation between politics and the media on both sides of the Rhine began to be blamed on the Federal Chancellor. Macron himself has repeatedly spoken out publicly on the topic of inaction on the part of Merkel, describing, including in the summer of 2019, relations with Germany as a story “with Paris constantly waiting for answers.” It is also no coincidence that the French leader’s remarks that the failure of bilateral relations would be a “historical mistake.”
However, the growing tension between Berlin and Paris was facilitated not only and even not so much by the lack of responses from the federal government. Rather, France itself under Macron made a number of foreign policy decisions that not only surprised, but sometimes irritated Berlin: some actions were carried out without the knowledge of Germany, others were contrary to the national interests of the FRG, and others rather expressed France’s unwillingness to conduct any substantive dialogue. Such decisions concerned the settlement of the crisis in Libya, France’s desire to move security issues outside the framework of the EU as an organization, the Eurozone, and its financial rules, which Paris called a “relic of the past”, NATO, Turkey and, finally, Russia.
Macron’s foreign policy and his security policy are subordinated to considerations that Europe should become a stronger and more independent political agent in a changing international environment. The French leader is keen to prevent Europe from becoming a bargaining chip in relations between Beijing and Washington when the main focus of the US is shifting to the Asia-Pacific region.
To meet this challenge, Macron has called for “format diversification” and pragmatic intra-European cooperation outside of existing institutions throughout the continuum of his reign. Proof of this is the European Intervention Initiative announced by Macron in September 2017 and initiated by the signing of a memorandum of understanding by the defense ministers of the emerging coalition states. Macron’s initiative de facto bypassed both the EU and NATO.
It is also noteworthy that Macron’s perception of the North Atlantic Alliance as a purely “military” and not a “military-political” bloc, whose resources, according to official Paris, should be used only to ensure the territorial defense of Europe. This is one of the key differences in the positions of Germany and France. The German government, on the contrary, emphasizes the importance and equivalence of both the political and military dimensions of NATO. Germany views the alliance as a central forum for transatlantic cooperation, while France prefers to build relations with the United States outside the organization.
Germany intends to maintain the “formatted status quo” in relation to the eurozone, continuing to consider the monetary union the most important “platform” for coordinating European financial cooperation. In this context, it is noteworthy that Macron has tightened his tone in relation to Germany’s position in the Economic and Monetary Union (EMU) of the EU since the summer of 2019. The French President has repeatedly called for a departure from European rules while noting that Germany is “the country that has benefited more from the eurozone than anyone else.” Paris and Berlin strive for varying degrees of “fiscal integration” and also disagree on the extent to which economic interventionism is permissible at the European level. In addition, they have different assessments of the role of the European Central Bank (ECB) and the current monetary policy. In the context of the pandemic, economic contradictions have only intensified, and there is no potential “new partnership” on this agenda.
The general dissatisfaction of the FRG, the discrepancy between the pragmatic tasks of the federal government of Merkel, and the utopian model that Macron puts at the head of his foreign policy concept pushed the French leader to actions that only exacerbated the misunderstanding between the two European countries.
An example of this can be the methods of resolving the crisis in Libya. According to an expert at the German Institute for International Politics and Security, the loyal line taken by Paris towards Khalifa Haftar “contributed to the escalation of the conflict and greater intervention by Russia and the UAE, while Europe actually lost its influence.”
The position taken by the French politician in August 2019 regarding Moscow was also unexpected for Berlin. Macron’s desire to conduct a dialogue with Russia fit into the foreign policy utopia of the French leader and was motivated by the desire to distract Moscow from building up cooperation with China. As noted by the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, “the government’s support of the President of the French Republic of the sanctions policy towards Russia, the consequences of the Navalny case, as well as the situation with Ukraine did not lead to a radical rejection of the president from his course of rapprochement with Vladimir Putin.” It is noteworthy that the object of criticism from the Merkel government is not the very fact of building a dialogue with Russia, but the insufficient involvement of Germany in the development of a unified approach, as well as the fact that “Macron’s ideas and beliefs are disconnected from the current events.”
The Turkish issue also leaves its imprint on the nature of bilateral relations, which fully reveals the specifics of the behavior of the two states: on the one hand, Germany with its pragmatic approach, on the other, France, characterized by sharp rhetoric and radical position. Macron quarreled with Erdogan, but Merkel maintains a dialogue with him. The difference between the positions of Paris and Berlin towards Ankara’s policy was very pronounced during the 44-day war in Nagorno-Karabakh. While the French officially condemned Turkey for supporting one of the parties to the armed conflict, Berlin preferred to remain silent.
Of course, it is impossible to talk about any overly tense nature of relations between Berlin and Paris. However, it would be inappropriate to assert the implementation of the principle of coordination of actions declared in the 2019 Aachen Treaty, as well as the establishment of “common points of view on all key issues.”
In 1963, the Elysee Treaty was signed between Germany and France, which laid the foundation for friendly relations between the two neighboring states. After signing it, skeptics pointed out that agreements are not eternal, sooner or later they fade, like girls or roses. Macron, drowning in his ideas about the future of Europe, impulsive and resentful, should think about the “roses” planted several years ago, which, if not completely faded, are clearly “not in bloom”.