60th Anniversary Of The Franco-German Axis: Quo Vadis, Europa? – Analysis
By Zhou Chao*
January 22 this year marks the 60th anniversary of the signing of the Franco-German Elysée Treaty. A grand celebration in Paris was held, attended by French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz. Macron said at the commemorative ceremony held at the Sorbonne University on the day that France and Germany must “become pioneers to relaunch Europe” because they have cleared the path to reconciliation. Meanwhile, Scholz said, “The future, like the past, rests on cooperation between both our countries as the driving force of a united Europe”, and that both France and Germany, as the drivers of European integration”, are able to transcend the difference. When Donald Trump was President of the United States, Macron criticized NATO in a state of “brain-death” in 2019, and repeatedly emphasized with Germany that Europe should seek strategic autonomy. Ironically, it is not NATO that is “brain-dead” now, but Europe’s concept of “strategic autonomy”.
After the Russia-Ukraine conflict broke out, the Franco-German axis, the core of the European Union, has met multiple and frequent problems. Germany announced a EUR 200 billion energy subsidy plan without discussion with France, which incurred the dissatisfaction of the latter. The bilateral ministerial meeting originally scheduled for late last year was unexpectedly postponed, and the usual press conference after the Paris summit between the two countries was not held. At one point, the deepening of the rift worried the international communities about the EU’s survival and development. However, the commemorative ceremony and the subsequent statements of the leaders of the two sides raised hopes for post-World War II Europe’s integration and the promotion of European status. Can the recommencement of the Franco-German axis really restore Europe to its former glory? The answer is, unfortunately, not exactly optimistic. Whether it is European autonomy or integration, it would be difficult to advance merely because of strengthened cooperation between France and Germany.
First of all, the premise for the Franco-German axis to strengthen European autonomy is the autonomy of both countries. Since de Charles Gaulle came to power, France has shown a strong demand for independence when its national strength was still weak. It pulled out from the NATO military integration command and only participated in NATO political organization. France also developed an independent nuclear-armed force and took the lead in establishing formal diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union and China. It was only in 2009 that France returned to the NATO military integration system after gaining a series of powers. Although Germany is garrisoned by the United States and its military and defense sovereignty is limited, its independent tendency continues to strengthen. After the Willy Brandt of the Social Democratic Party came to power, he implemented the Ostpolitik (“eastern policy”) and focused on developing relations with the Soviet Union and Eastern European countries. In the 1970s, the first Soviet gas pipeline to Germany began to be constructed. Since then, the basic framework of the Ostpolitik has been inherited by successive German governments. Although Germany has always remained in the global alliance system of the United States, its actual role is more like a bridge between the East and the West, with corresponding strategic autonomy. In the process of German reunification and the withdrawal of the Soviet force, the German government showed a very high degree of initiative. During the Crimean crisis in 2014, France and Germany jointly successfully dissuaded the United States from escalating its sanctions against Russia and facilitated the easing of the crisis. However, the situation following the Russia-Ukraine conflict has changed all that. Due to the decoupling of energy from Russia, these two countries will be more dependent on the energy supply of the United States for a period of time in the future, which in turn will be greatly weakened their energy independence. Germany has now approved to send the Leopard II tanks to assist Ukraine, which has actually pushed Russia into an even more desperate situation. The basic framework of the Ostpolitik has now ceased to exist. Both France and Germany have chosen to follow the position of the United States in the geopolitical confrontation, and their strategic autonomy has been further weakened. The EU-NATO Joint Declaration on Cooperation shows that Europe will further rely on NATO for its own security, and the realization of its strategic autonomy is increasingly distant.
Second, Germany and France have been unable to continue to promote the process of European integration. After the outbreak of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, Germany’s hesitation and two-sidedness in the process of military aid to Ukraine and its own military expansion have fully exposed its lack of concern for European security affairs. As an important pillar of European security, this is an indication that Germany is unable to shoulder the heavy responsibility of the integration. After the outbreak of the conflict, Eastern European countries headed by Poland actively expand their armies and prepared for war, and are resolute in providing military aid to Ukraine, as well as accepting its refugees. Such actions have greatly enhanced the voice and influence of Poland and other Eastern European countries in European security affairs, which greatly impacted the dominant position of France and Germany. Considering that the confrontation between Poland and Germany has intensified in recent years, it is difficult to reach a consensus on security issues between Old and New Europe, and the realization of European security integration is even more out of the question. As far as economic and technological affairs are concerned, European countries vowed to fight back against the pressure of the American Inflation Reduction Act of 2022. However, when Von der Leyen announced the European version of a similar act, it attracted opposition from many countries. The relevant coordination work in this will take time and effort, and in all likelihood by the time a consensus is reached, many of the EU’s top companies have already been absorbed by the United States. When it comes to science and technology, taking the pharmaceutical industry as an example, the recent shortage of drugs in Europe highlights the plight of Germany, once touted as the “world pharmaceutical factory”. Due to the dilemma, the European Federation of Pharmaceutical Industries and Associations (EFPIA) has repeatedly called on the European Commission to take action, but there has been little response to it. This reflects the complexity and inefficiency of the EU’s decision-making framework. It is difficult to fundamentally change this situation only by strengthening cooperation between France and Germany to make further progress in Europe’s security and economic integration.
Finally, the cooperation between France and Germany may not necessarily be effectively strengthened in the future. The Franco-German joint declaration did not completely bridge the differences between the two sides. As far as European defense is concerned, France hopes to develop a new generation of fighter jets with Germany, but Germany still insists on purchasing F-35 fighter jets from the United States and said it will continue to advance this plan. Furthermore, France hopes that the anti-missile system jointly developed by France-Italy will become the main force of the European anti-missile system, but Germany still tends to rely on the United States-Israel anti-missile system. As for energy transition, France has always insisted on the transition from nuclear energy to hydrogen energy, while Germany holds on to relying on renewable energy such as wind power. Although Germany has officially agreed to join the hydrogen energy network led by France and Spain, considering the strong anti-nuclear sentiment within the country itself, supplemented by Scholz’s weak position, the real implementation of this plan remains highly doubtful.
In terms of economic and technological affairs, it will be difficult for the EU to change its disadvantageous position, and the overall trend will be it relies on the United States. Security-wise, European security integration is almost impossible to continue to improve. It is very possible that the Old European countries will be coerced by the United States and Eastern European countries to participate in the global confrontation with China. Many think tank researchers have been discussing France’s further involvement in Indo-Pacific affairs, a trend that will become more obvious in the future. As far as Franco-German cooperation is concerned, cooperation between the two countries is expected to continue to strengthen in areas such as the reform of the European electricity pricing mechanism and the reconstruction of Ukraine, but the room for continuous improvement in key areas such as defense will not be optimistic. This may not be of great significance to the expected European integration, because it is already difficult for Germany and France to change the overall situation of the European Union.
Final analysis conclusion:
Christoph Heusgen, chair of the Munich Security Conference, believes that 60 years after the signing of the Elysée Treaty, France and Germany still have the same ideal, i.e., to build a resilient, strong, and sovereign EU. The Franco-German axis has always been considered the driver of European integration and autonomy. This would, however, requires a harmonious relationship between the two countries. As it stands, Europe has undergone profound changes and the Franco-German axis can no longer move toward its ideal direction.
Zhou Chao is a researcher at ANBOUND