The two countries are actually forming an alliance of their own by setting up a Franco-German Defence and Security Council, independent of the EU and NATO.
On 22 January this year, the French President and the German Chancellor signed a new bilateral treaty at Aachen, the former capital of Charlemagne where German Emperors were usually crowned. The symbolism of the location was not lost on historically savvy observers. The treaty, described as expanding on the 1963 Elysée Treaty between De Gaulle and Adenauer, has raised many eyebrows and generated acrimony within the two countries and also in the other EU member-states, partly because there was little public debate about it and partly because ominous implications have been evoked by parties and movements hostile to or at least suspicious of closer European integration, on both the left and the right.
Will this new agreement between the former enemies have a far reaching impact? On the surface it appears to bind Berlin and Paris further together in legislative, juridical, economic, administrative and military terms. One can doubt, however, that two nations substantially different in their cultures, political structures and visions of the world can really get much closer than they already are without introducing a substantial element of compulsion.
The widespread worry among the French is that German laws and regulations will become the standard, especially in the border regions and länder which are developing into trans-boundary administrative divisions in which specific legislations may apply. As a result at least parts of France will be inevitably federalized in the image of her German neighbour and that predictable evolution, which will weaken the Central government, is not well received by all in the “one and invisible” Gallic Republic.
Given the material superiority of Germany over her demographically and economically smaller French partner, many of the latter’s citizens fear a satellization of their nation and a gradual delinking from Paris of the eastern provinces of Alsace and Lorraine, long fought over between the two states in the past. Such concerns are not necessarily allayed by the promised creation of a unified Franco-German economic zone and the setting up a joint Council of Ministers to deal with certain issues and formulate policies.
There is widespread anxiety about the expressed mutual commitment to “a common foreign and security policy”, despite diplomatic positions and goals that are not always shared, as well as “a global open market”, which promises to expose the domestic industrial and agricultural sectors to even more intense threats.
The concept of economic, fiscal and social convergence is stated but not explicited; yet it implies that both countries would have to substantially modify many of the institutions and procedures traditionally held as being basic to their respective national identities. The treaty also specifies that the two governments should adopt common positions on all important decisions to be made. One wonders whether such close bilateral coordination is not a snub to all other EU members reduced to playing second fiddle to the Paris-Berlin axis. Although the two countries undertake, according to the terms of the agreement, to reinforce the EU and NATO, they are actually forming an alliance of their own by setting up a Franco-German Defence and Security Council, independent of the other two aforesaid organisations, at least in theory and allowing for common (military) stabilisation operations in third countries. It may be significant that the requirement to secure UN Security Council approval is not mentioned in this regard but given the substantial divergence between French policy, steeped in its traditions as an imperial power in far-flung areas of the world, and German aversion to foreign armed interventions, a joint decision in this regard could be quite hard to reach more often than not.
France sees itself as having a de facto right to intervene for peace keeping and protecting its assets in former colonies and protectorates in Africa, West Asia and the Indo-Pacific, while Berlin has no such interests or claims. The undertaking to adopt a “common policy on arms export” is also problematic as Germany takes a restrictive view on this matter, whereas military sales are a major source of income for the French Republic. A recent example was Berlin’s decision to suspend arms sales to Saudi Arabia which did not deter Paris from continuing to supply Riyadh with a wide array of advanced weaponry.
One clause of the treaty enunciates France’s commitment to support Germany’s permanent UNSC membership, but that appears to be a perfunctory gesture. Indeed, it is hard to see the EU holding two or three permanent seats (if Britain remains associated to it in some way) in the Security Council when there is still no decision and not agreement in view regarding the admission of major Asian, African and Latin American states. The Italian government, particularly upset about the Franco-German pact, has lost no time in demanding that France surrender its UNSC seat to the European Union.
While other countries in the Union feel left out by this bilateral entente, the leading right-wing opposition parties at home, the National Rally in France and the AfD in Germany are vocally opposed to what they describe as a forced marriage which would make Paris lose much of its sovereignty and conversely might oblige the Federal Republic to share its wealth with heavily indebted France (whose debt amounts to about 100% of its GDP).
The reversal of fortunes between the two countries since 1963 is visible, with the then underdog Germany having become the preponderant power in a wider Europe; however, the two signatories, President Macron and Chancellor Merkel are lame duck leaders, the former put on the back-foot by popular protests and the latter on her way out of politics.
The charge raised by many in France is that the treaty was mostly written in Berlin and was translated into French for approval by the Presidency, which would account for the scant publicity given to this contentious document, about which few people knew much, until the last days before it was signed. Is it a parting legacy of Angela Merkel, a gift to her country, meant to further repair the post-war situation, which placed a truncated Germany into a junior role vis-à-vis the victorious allies? That may be an unfair reading by nostalgic French and German nationalists, but there is little doubt that the Aachen treaty is a response to Brexit, which Britain would have opposed tooth and nail, while France itself often played London against Berlin within the EU and may do so in the future too. Lately, Paris has raised objections to the NordStream Russo-German gas pipeline project and may vote against it in the EU council, although that would considerably irritate the German establishment. Such issues illustrate the insidious segmentation of the Union into various tiers. The most vocal criticism against the Aachen treaty has come from Italy, Poland and smaller EU members that have long complained of being pushed around and hectored by the two largest states and now feel humiliated by this ostensible wedding between the premier industrial economy and the biggest military and political power on the continent.
Time will tell if this German-French diarchy will remain a faithful confederate of Nato and the Atlantic bloc or will assert its independence and look eastwards to Russia and beyond in pursuit of its own interests. Berlin’s latest decision to set up a state fund in order to protect strategic companies from foreign (read American and Chinese) financial attacks and takeovers is a sign of the new reality. Meanwhile, the agreements that are being made by Italy, Greece and Central/Eastern European states with Moscow and Beijing indicate that “all options are on the table” for the countries of an increasingly divided European subcontinent.