22 January marks the 60th anniversary of the Franco-German Treaty of Friendship (“Elysée Treaty”). Fewer than 20 years after the end of World War II, it gave Germany and France the go-ahead for the first twinning of cities, found­ed the Franco-German Youth Office and arranged mutual government consultations. Decades of enmity and war were followed by institutionalised friendship.

Since then, France and Germany have time and again proven to be the “engine” of the European unification process. Ground-breaking achievements such as the completion of the single market, the introduction of a common currency or, most recently, the establishment of the NextGenEU reconstruction fund were often possible only because Berlin and Paris had agreed in advance and presented the relevant proposals as joint projects.

Nevertheless, there is not much of a celebratory mood. The anniversary is overshadowed by war and crisis, especially since Germany and France do not agree on important issues of crisis management, such as the further development of European security policy and future energy policy. The question arises now as to how well the much-vaunted Franco-German engine is still working as an integration accelerator given the rumblings of a “Zeitenwende” (turning point).

Differing energy-policy preferences

In principle, differing opinions on European policy between Germany and France are nothing new. They have always existed and continue to do so, e.g., in foreign and security policy or in economic and fiscal policy. Against this background, neither is it surprising that both countries have different positions on certain issues of current crisis management as a result of the Russian war of aggression.

Germany and France have had opposing ideas on energy policy for years, which have now become particularly apparent given European efforts to become independent of Russian imports. France obtains almost 70 percent of its electricity from nuclear energy, whereas Germany decided to phase out nuclear energy in 2011 following the Fukushima nuclear catastrophe. Accordingly, the German government has long resisted including nuclear energy in the European taxonomy for classifying sustainable investment categories. In the end, France prevailed, supported by a whole series of other European states.

Germany and France also pursue different interests with regard to gas supply. Whereas Germany, together with Spain, worked towards constructing the controversial MidCat pipeline, which was to supply Germany with gas via the Pyrenees, France put a stop to the project. Moreover, Paris, which early on had capped its prices at the national level, advocated a strict European gas price cap. Berlin, arguing that a price cap endangered EU gas supplies, initially disapproved of such a regulation – meanwhile, an agreement has been reached at the European level.

For France, Germany’s rejection of a gas price cap, like its uncoordinated €200 billion aid package to mitigate high energy prices (the so-called “double whammy”), indicated that Germany, which used to be highly dependent on Russian energy, lacked European solidarity.

Security policy differences in substance and style

In security policy, the war and the “Zeitenwende” proclaimed by German Chancellor Olaf Scholz shortly after the outbreak of war have also made long-standing differences in substance and political style visible. Since his momentous Sorbonne speech in 2017, French President Emmanuel Macron has been promoting a sovereign Europe that stands on its own two feet in terms of foreign and security policy (by the way, one of Charles de Gaulle’s central motives for signing the Elysée Treaty was to limit American influence in Europe.)

Macron has remained true to this European leitmotif ever since, with Germany always being the first addressee of his message. However, for a long time Berlin either cautiously or not at all reacted to numerous concrete proposals from Paris, such as the establishment of a European Security Council or the creation of a common defence budget. Instead, the German government persisted in a kind of security policy “phlegm” much to proactive Macron’s disappointment.

Ultimately, the agreement of the German “traffic light coalition” committed itself with remarkable clarity to the goal of a sovereign Europe, which raised new hopes in the Elysée Palace.

The special funds of 100 billion euros decreed for the Bundeswehr in the context of the turn of the times also let France hope for a more ambitious and active European security policy on the part of Germany. Yet the first implementation measures were disappointing.

Instead of focusing on French or at least European armament projects, the German government invested the first funds for an Israeli anti-missile system as well as U.S. F-35 fighter jets that are quickly available and interoperable with Eastern European forces.

France was left out of this as well as the European Sky Shield Initiative to strengthen European air defences (in contrast to 14 other European states, mainly from Central and Eastern Europe).

This nourished French concerns that Germany might orient itself more towards the east in terms of security policy and distance itself from France, all the more so since the joint tank and jet projects Main Ground Combat System (MGCS) and Future Combat Air System (FCAS) respectively are behind their planned target timelines (despite recent progress).

The different positions were sometimes also overshadowed by atmospheric tensions at the government level. For example, a meeting of the Franco-German Council of Ministers at the end of October was postponed by several weeks at short notice (officially for reasons of holiday planning) because France did not expect substantial progress to be made at this meeting.

The Franco-German engine remains important

The recent tensions do not change the fact that the Franco-German engine remains important for three reasons. Firstly, Germany and France have repeatedly managed to agree on jointly supported compromises on crucial issues. Their original basic positions to complete the single market and to introduce the euro, for example, were far apart. Hence it is quite possible that both sides will converge on some controversial subjects or cooperate despite different points of view. In the energy sector, for example, despite existing differences, Olaf Scholz and the French Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne recently signed a joint declaration on energy solidarity, where both countries commit themselves to helping each other out with electricity or gas in case of need.

Secondly, both countries know about the value of partnership and have a serious interest in making it work. The postponement of the Council of Ministers was followed by a veritable diplomatic charm offensive in which the German ministers Annalena Baerbock, Robert Habeck, Christian Lindner and Volker Wissing travelled to Paris and Élisabeth Borne to Berlin for consultations at the end of November. On the anniversary of the Elysée Treaty, the entire Federal Cabinet and members of the Bundestag will be received in the French capital for a ceremony.

Thirdly, there is definitely common ground and functioning cooperation between Berlin and Paris. This applies both to the working level, where many bilateral projects, such as the Franco-German Forum for the Future, are being successfully implemented, and to “summit policy.” At the end of last year, for example, the Ministers for Economic Affairs Robert Habeck and Bruno Le Maire published a joint declaration for a European industrial policy. With it, the two countries promote, among other things, further developing joint European investment projects (so-called IPCEIs) in the areas of battery cell production and hydrogen and aim for a timely European response to the American state aid package Inflation Reduction Act (IRA).

Joint future projects based on common interests

Even 60 years after the signing of the Elysée Treaty, nothing has changed in the rule of thumb that the chances for European unity increase when Germany and France pull together. Nevertheless, not every European problem has to be solved by a Franco-German initiative.

In certain areas, both countries simply have different positions, which are sometimes deeply rooted and will not always be harmonised. It is important to acknowledge this pragmatically and to move forward together where interests coincide. A genuine industrial policy alliance, for example, which advances Europe on its path towards climate neutrality, could be such a significant Franco-German future project.

About the author

Malte Zabel is Co-Director of the Bertelsmann Stiftung’s Europe’s Future Program, which pursues projects on the EU’s sovereignty, a coherent internal market, and European public opinion.

Watch the recording of our recent webinar Does the Franco-German “Engine” Need a Change?

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