Why the Franco-German Relationship is Critical to the European Union’s Survival

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Written by Britt Bolin

Europe let out a deep sigh of relief after the French election, happy that pro-Europeanism had prevailed over France-first nationalism in the union’s most important, and uncertain, election yet. The new president, Emmanuel Macron, now faces enormous challenges not only in reforming France, but also the European Union. As France cannot do this alone, Macron looks to Germany to help enact his proposed reforms. Macron’s election provides a critical opportunity to revive the Franco-German partnership and push through significant change on the European level.

The strong French-German relationship has been at the heart of the European Union since its beginning in 1951 as the European Coal and Steel Community. The “European engine” was behind some of the biggest achievements of the European Union, from the establishment of a single market to the introduction of the Euro. The bond between the two countries has frayed in recent years due to tensions over the Eurozone debt crisis and the refugee crisis. With France weakened by domestic issues during these crises, Germany had the opportunity to demonstrate the extent of its power within the European Union.

Macron’s openly pro-European stance raises hope for a strong Franco-German partnership and the European Union following the shock of Brexit. Macron has proposed a series of deep reforms, which he calls “historic reconstruction,” that will address the institutional shortcomings of the Eurozone, stimulate the economy, and renew the European Union’s vigor. Macron aims to institute a common Eurozone budget and fiscal policy, create the post of Eurozone finance minister, complete the banking union, and form a Eurozone parliament. However, these changes will require unanimous agreement for treaty change amongst all EU member states.

These proposals have elicited opposing reactions in Berlin in the run up to September’s federal election. The Social Democrats (SPD) saw an opportunity to position themselves as the “pro-European” party and enthusiastically welcomed Macron’s ideas. Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU), on the other hand, had a more tepid response to his institutional reform proposals. Leading CDU politicians decried the prospect of a “transfer union,” which finds little support in an electorate tired of contributing German taxpayer funds to Eurozone bailouts. Surprisingly, earlier rebuffs by Merkel and her finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, turned into positive signals after Macron’s victory, when Merkel expressed a willingness to discuss treaty change. Cynical observers might charge that this is merely an election tactic to co-opt the SPD’s pro-Europe position. A more optimistic view is that Merkel has recognized an opportunity to reform and strengthen the European Union without giving the impression that Germany is dictating change from above.

Both sides are aware that much is at stake. If Macron is unable to bring about significant change in France, the door will be open for the right-wing populists in the next election. Germany is also weary of being viewed as Europe’s hegemon and being blamed for the ills of Europe’s economy. Macron’s success will depend on his ability to reform France’s labor market and lowering unemployment rates. Macron also recognizes that domestic reforms are a necessary precondition to change on the European level, promising “to restore the credibility of France in the eyes of the Germans to be able to convince them of the need for a relaunch of growth.” The German government, for its part, has long said that it is open to Eurozone reform, but only once other member states fix their economic problems and obey the rules regarding budget deficits. In practice, however, Germany has been resistant to change and unwilling to implement the reforms necessary to enable a functioning Eurozone.

First steps towards European reform are likely to be smaller and more pragmatic given the long-time frame required for treaty change. Potential areas for immediate increased European cooperation driven by France and Germany include the EU’s asylum policies and bilateral trade. After the September election, however, Germany will need to follow through on past promises regarding Eurozone structural changes and be willing to compromise with France. Macron will also need to demonstrate concrete domestic achievements in order to credibly follow through on deeper European integration. Macron’s proposals could be the imperative to undertake controversial reforms that were raised during the Eurozone debt crisis but never implemented.

Germany and France have a vested interest in one another’s success, and the timing is right to revive the strong cross-Rhine relationship at the heart of the Union. With the power of an energized Franco-German partnership behind it, the European Union could discover a renewed sense of purpose.

About the author: Britt L. Bolin is a Europe Fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy (YPFP). Britt is also a doctoral candidate in political economy at the University of Mannheim, where she earned her MA in political science.