More than half a century after signing an iconic treaty of friendship, the French and the Germans are preparing for a modern update to their alliance. On Jan. 22, French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel will sit down in Aachen to sign a document deepening the bond between their governments. The document, which will spell out their enhanced cooperation on security, defense and the economy, is meant to send the message that the two stand united in the face of the many issues confronting the European Union, including how to manage growing nationalism or navigate disputes with global powers like the United States and China. While the document will probably resemble more a declaration of intent than a list of concrete policy goals, it shows that the two largest economies in the European Union are still interested in preserving their alliance. This does not entail, however, that France and Germany will get everything they want, as both face significant limits on their push to protect the process of European integration.
The Franco-German alliance is the single most important relationship in Europe. Disputes between France and Germany led to several European wars between 1870 and 1945, while their reconciliation after World War II led to the creation of the European Union. Although the bloc has become increasingly complex in recent decades, Paris and Berlin remain at the organization's political and economic core.
From the Elysee to Aachen
The Aachen agreement is intended as a follow-up to the Elysee Treaty of 1963, in which France and West Germany agreed to increase their political, economic, military and cultural cooperation. The two countries signed that pact less than two decades after the end of World War II, when the European Economic Community (the EEC, the European Union's predecessor) was barely six years old. At that time, Paris and Bonn were still seeking ways to leave their traumatic past behind and foster cooperation on crucial issues such as foreign policy and defense. France viewed the treaty as a means to enhance Europe's autonomy from the United States at a time when West Germany was pursuing close cooperation with the White House. Bonn was also backing the United Kingdom's accession to the EEC in the face of French skepticism. Even if Germany's Bundestag irked the French government during the Elysee ratification process by adding a preamble expressing Bonn's commitment to the trans-Atlantic relationship, there can be no doubt that Franco-German cooperation has deepened substantially over the past six decades, to the extent that the two countries now share the same currency – a development that would have scarcely seemed possible in 1963.
There are notable parallels between the Elysee Treaty and its present-day successor. As in 1963, France today wants the union to become more autonomous on economic, political and military issues. For example, Paris defends plans to deepen military cooperation in Europe and create a European Monetary Fund that will reduce EU member states' reliance on the International Monetary Fund during crises. Europe is, furthermore, readjusting its relationship with the United Kingdom – this time because London is leaving, rather than coming. Indeed, the shock of Brexit has prompted the de facto European Union co-leaders, France and Germany, to pursue a more united front. And finally, just as it did then, the White House is again looming large in France and Germany's calculations, this time because of trade difficulties between Washington and Brussels.
Franco-German cooperation has deepened substantially over the past six decades, to the extent that the two countries now share the same currency – a development that would have scarcely seemed possible in 1963.
Regardless of the parallels, the context is dramatically different today than it was 56 years ago. The European Union is not an alliance of just six countries, but 28 (27 once the United Kingdom formally leaves). The much bigger bloc is also much less cohesive than it was in the 1960s. France and Germany still carry a lot of weight in the European Union's decision process, but they are no longer its undisputed leaders. Strategic and ideological disputes between Northern and Southern Europe, and between western and eastern members of the bloc, have led to political fragmentation. At the same time, the emergence of nationalist and Euroskeptic political forces everywhere on the Continent poses a serious threat to the union's continuity.
More than that, political and economic integration in Europe has deepened so much since the Elysee Treaty that the stakes rise considerably with every round of reform. Today, the process of European federalization has reached a fateful point: The Continent's next decisions will center on whether to issue debt that is jointly backed by all members of the bloc, introduce a common guarantee for deposits in European banks or even establish a European army. The European Union has traditionally sought to federalize itself without completely erasing the nation-state, but this balance is becoming increasingly harder to maintain. As it is, most EU members have already ceded one of the main prerogatives of the nation-state, the ability to issue one's own currency. The natural next steps are to introduce a federal fiscal policy (and deprive nation-states of their right to collect their own taxes and spend their own money) and create a federal military (and deprive nation-states of their right to organize their own armed forces or, in the cases of Ireland or Austria, remain neutral).
Holding the Alliance Back
Over the past decade, the European Union has avoided this question for the simple reason that members could not reach a consensus on reforming the Lisbon Treaty of 2007. Ever impatient, the French government recently expressed support for a so-called "multispeed Europe," a structure in which some countries would integrate faster than others. To some extent, the union already works this way, as some members use the euro while others have retained their national currencies; likewise, some are part of the passport-free Schengen area while others are not. The problem with institutionalizing this approach is that it would deepen the divergences between member states, thereby making the decision-making process even more complex. Germany would probably resist this approach, since many of the potential have-nots are likely to be in Central and Eastern Europe, a region that Berlin considers its sphere of influence. Abandoning these countries to their own fates could make Germany's eastern flank more susceptible to influence from countries like the United States, Russia and China – a prospect that Berlin wishes to avoid.
A smaller bloc would almost certainly make it more cohesive, yet it would not necessarily make it more successful at addressing its global challenges. The other two pillars of the world economy, the United States and China, are consolidated states with large populations and effective central governments. The European Union is already struggling to achieve key foreign policy goals such as defending the international trade system against America's push to reshape it, or pressuring China to create a level playing field for European investors doing business in the country – a smaller union that represents a more modest market would probably achieve even less success in pursuing those types of goals.
A smaller bloc would almost certainly make it more cohesive, yet it would not necessarily make it more successful at addressing its global challenges.
There are also more prosaic factors complicating European federalization under the aegis of France and Germany. Some of Paris' proposed measures to share financial risk and increase public spending in the eurozone are difficult to stomach for Berlin, as well as Northern Europe, particularly at a time when governments in Southern European countries like Italy are willing to bend – if not break – the rules that mandate fiscal discipline. For Germany, preserving the closest possible alliance with France is a priority. But Berlin must also preserve its ties with its Northern European neighbors, many of whom are extremely skeptical of the kinds of fiscal policies that Paris backs. To complicate matters, these countries have begun to organize themselves to resist French policies through groups such as the Dutch-led "New Hanseatic League," a group which also includes Sweden, Denmark, Ireland, Finland and the Baltic states.
France and Germany are sincere in their push for a closer bilateral alliance, as well as an ever-tighter union on the Continent. In fact, it's in both countries' interest to work closely so that another war between them is impossible, while both wish to limit the influence of external powers like the United States, Russia or China. Nevertheless, factors beyond the pair's immediate control will continue to shape their relationship, especially as the framework within which they operate – the European Union – shows no signs of resolving its problem of fragmentation anytime soon.