A close relationship between France and Germany has long been regarded as postwar Europe’s engine, underpinning the foundation of the EU, the single currency and much more. But the engine has been spluttering, and over the past two years tensions and disagreements have piled up. This is ironic because, on paper at least, French and German views on Europe have never been closer. Emmanuel Macron is arguably the most pro-European French president in a generation, and Olaf Scholz’s coalition has vowed to turn the EU into a federal state, in sharp contrast to the view that dominated in the Merkel years.
And yet on critical areas of cooperation for Europe, France and Germany couldn’t be further apart, which is a serious risk for Europe at a time of great geopolitical peril. While the war in Ukraine – and Scholz’s bold call in February 2022 for a Zeitenwende (turning point) and an end to Germany’s traditionally reticent foreign policy – should have paved the way for a real leap in integrated European defence, the reality is that nothing meaningful has been done. In fact, many Franco-German defence cooperation projects have gone backwards.
Despite a great deal of singing from the same hymn sheet in response to the war in Ukraine (powerful sanctions and effective use of joint EU mechanisms to support Kyiv militarily and financially), progress towards real European strategic autonomy is limited – and this despite a potentially fateful US election looming and the geopolitical crises now encircling Europe. The growing distrust is a matter of both style and substance. Germany has come to despise Macron’s permanent grandstanding, for example. But Germany itself is also slowly but surely turning inward and becoming more nationalistic.
A project between France and Germany for a next-generation combat aircraft critical for the protection of Europe’s skies is slowly and quietly fizzling out. First, because Germany continues to order F-35 fighter jets from the US, but more importantly because – as the Times reported – it could potentially abandon the project altogether and join the UK’s Tempest programme alongside Italy and Japan. This would be a terrible blow for France, akin to Australia’s cancelling of its submarine programme with France in favour of the trilateral Aukus project.
The Main Ground Combat System (MGCS), a bold, next-generation tank developed by France’s Nexter and Germany’s KMW, is also being slowly hollowed out. Rheinmetall, which joined the consortium in 2019, is now developing and building its own tank. As a result, France and Germany’s defence ministers were forced to concede that if any tank is delivered as part of this joint venture, it will be with at least a 10-year delay.
Germany’s biggest defence move since the Ukraine war is the development of the European Sky Shield, an anti-ballistic missile system, born of the realisation that robust air defence systems are critical for Ukraine in countering Russia’s airstrikes. But this project is being developed without France and most of southern Europe, outside of the EU framework and on the basis of US and Israeli technology. Germany signed a formal agreement with Israel in September, and eventually intends to integrate the system into Nato’s wider air defence efforts. Importantly, the impact that new anti-ballistic missile programme would have on British and French nuclear deterrence or on nuclear proliferation treaties has not even been seriously discussed. Berlin’s Zeitenwende is leaving a very sour aftertaste, and the doubling down on transatlantic ties at the expense of building a new European security architecture is unfathomable to Paris.
On energy policy, France and Germany are increasingly at odds and these tensions are holding back Europe’s energy and climate policy in profound ways. Germany, which typically relies on electricity imported from France’s nuclear facilities when its intermittent renewable production falters, was traumatised by major disruptions in French nuclear electricity production in the summer of 2022, amid war in Ukraine and at the height of what appeared to be a potential existential threat to Germany’s economy. The fact that Germany had to fire up coal and natural gas stations to export electricity to France during these fateful months has created a profound loss of trust in France’s nuclear strategy.
For France, the closure by Germany of fully functioning nuclear power plants in the middle of a war and at a time of profound energy insecurity will only increase German emissions, and passes for pure folly. The reality is that neither country’s assessment of the other’s energy policy is wrong, but it is tearing them apart and undermining the emergence of a cohesive and coherent European energy policy. It is also delaying the investments needed in renewables, interconnections, smart grids and hydrogen production and distribution.
On the eurozone, there has been no further progress since the great leap forward by Angela Merkel and Macron in 2020, which enabled a €750bn joint borrowing and recovery facility. Nor is there any agreement in sight on reforming fiscal rules, on a larger EU budget, on expanding the EU’s “own resources” (its direct sources of revenue) or on extending the Covid crisis fund, so instrumental in shoring up the European economy post-pandemic. As a result, what was in 2020 hailed as a momentous step for the EU could well unravel in the coming years.
These tensions on critical areas of policy cooperation are deep and affect every aspect of the European policy process, including the ongoing enlargement and institutional reform debate. In January 2022, I was one of a group of 12 experts appointed by the French and German governments to explore ways to expand and deepen integration, a first attempt at rebuilding Franco-German affection. The group’s work was guided by two key speeches – one given by Macron, the other by Scholz – in which both defended an ambitious internal EU reform agenda.
Macron offered a bold vision of an enlarged Europe and a reorganisation of the continent under the European political community, to include non-EU members such as the UK and Turkey, but he stressed the need to deepen integration for the EU itself.
A few months later, Scholz set out a grand bargain. He agreed to underwrite EU institutional reform before the next enlargement, but proposed a quid pro quo that rested on France agreeing to allow majority voting on foreign policy and Germany agreeing to drop the national veto on tax policy. Since that offer has been put on the table, France’s response has been rather ambiguous, the Franco-German relationship has deteriorated further and the space for Franco-German compromise receded.
There are several explanations for the tension, but scant hope of rapid improvement. Macron and Scholz appear to have reached a state of personal distrust and incompatibility that is not likely to change soon, if ever. Current economic uncertainty surrounding European competitiveness is provoking a very nationalist reflex in both countries – most visible in the reaction to the war in Ukraine and to Joe Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act. Finally, contrary to France, Germany seems to believe that the only way to keep the US involved in Europe is to avoid building autonomous defence capacity, and this may not change until a new US president is elected.
Overall, Germany fundamentally doubts whether behind Macron’s messianic European speeches there is any real willingness or capacity to compromise on France’s national interests, given the French president’s precarious domestic political situation.
The European Council meeting in December will be an important test and a signal. The 27 heads of government are expected to formally open accession talks for Ukraine. This moment of truth should set out a process and an agenda for reforming Europe, including via treaty changes. It will also mark the start of the campaign for the European elections in 2024 and highlight that there is only a small window of opportunity, before elections in Germany in 2025 and in France in 2027, for Europe to move forward. Berlin and Paris must seize it before it closes.
Shahin Vallée is a senior research fellow at the German Council for Foreign Relations