Ukraine war reveals underlying tensions in Franco-German relationship

Emmanuel Macron and Olaf Scholz are attempting to align on energy and military matters but cracks are beginning to show on the 60th anniversary of the Élysée Treaty

Marc Bassets
Emmanuel Macron
Emmanuel Macron (left) and Olaf Scholz on January 22 in Paris.CHRISTOPHE PETIT TESSON (EFE)

There are moments in history that have a convulsive effect and change the face of entire continents. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, launched almost a year ago, is one of those moments. According to the essayist Luuk van Middelaar, February 24, 2022, is a date comparable to the fall of the Berlin wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union. And, as was the case in 1989, the events of 2022 and 2023 have shaken the foundations of one of the foundation blocks of the European Union (EU): the Franco-German alliance.

The war in Ukraine has had a dual effect for France and Germany, who between 1870 and 1945 fought each other in three wars and whose subsequent reconciliation drove the integration of Europe and post-World War II peace. The first effect is the shift of the EU’s center of gravity eastward. Countries such as Poland and the Baltic states have been warning of the danger posed by Vladimir Putin’s Russia for years, while France and Germany have largely sought to appease the Kremlin. Time has proven the fears of the easter European countries correct.

Germany’s decision to authorize the delivery of Leopard 2 battle tanks to the Armed Forces of Ukraine is the latest example of this shift in the correlation of forces. The nations that provide the EU’s eastern bulwark, together with Ukraine, have been calling for more robust military aid to Kyiv for some time. A year ago, Berlin was reluctant to sever its ties with Moscow and was eager to avoid any militarization of its foreign policy. Now, it has provided heavy weapons that may prove decisive on the battlefield.

The second effect of the invasion of Ukraine on the Franco-German engine is that the war has “exacerbated tensions that already existed between them beforehand,” says Sophie Pornschlegel, a political analyst at the European Policy Centre in Brussels. Last autumn, accumulated disagreements forced Paris and Berlin to postpone a joint council of ministers in extremis, bringing a backlog of unease between the two capitals to the surface.

On January 22, to mark the 60th anniversary of the Élysée Treaty, Emmanuel Macron and Olaf Scholz finally net with their cabinets in a show of unity. But the summit ended without agreements or ambitious plans for the EU. “Both keep making out that they are the best of friends when clearly there are problems,” says Pornschlegel. “It’s quite hypocritical, in the knowledge that Macron and Scholz don’t get along. There are sections of the German government that are clearly pro-European and want to work more productively with France: I’m talking about the Greens. There have been efforts made in this direction. But given the political situation in Europe and the crises we are going through it is irresponsible for France and Germany not to work more closely together. There is a lot of symbolism, but little progress.”

The weakening of the Franco-German driving force in Europe and the tensions between the two countries raise questions: Will they continue to be as important in the future as they were during the previous 70 years of European integration? And, with Europe and the world undergoing rapid change, will they be able to maintain cohesion?

Different visions of Europe

It would not be the first time that obituaries have been prepared for the Franco-German entente. The history of the two countries is one of almost constant crisis. Precisely because both hold different visions of Europe and the wider world, when they do some together they drive Europe forward. Together, France and Germany account for 42% of the EU’s GDP. To assume that the EU can continue to function without this engine being finely tuned is chimeric, as it trusting that it is enough on its own.

“It is becoming increasingly clear that the Franco-German partnership is necessary, but insufficient,” says Arancha González Laya, dean of the Paris School of International Affairs at Sciences Po and a former Spanish Minister of Foreign Affairs. During her time in government, González Laya promoted a strategy for Madrid to weave alliances with other partners beyond adhesion to the Franco-German engine. She now talks about an “asynchrony” between the two nations. “Each has a different political rhythm,” she explains. In France, a hyper-centralized power with a president who is in his final term and facing huge social unrest. In Germany, a tripartite coalition of social democrats, ecologists and liberals with different electoral interests and different visions of Europe.

There is a double sense of confusion in France, faced with a Germany that is rearming and could once again assume it role as a political and military power, as well as an economic one, and with a less-Carolingian, more Slavic and Baltic, Europe, which in turn now looks to Washington for its protection. The Ukraine war has forced Macron to shelve his plans for greater European military autonomy and his 2019 diagnosis that NATO is in a state of “brain death” has been proven inaccurate. There is also the suspicion among many of France’s allies that Macron’s Europeanism is, as Pornschlegel puts it, a way of “using the EU for his national interests.”

While Berlin talks of a “Franco-German engine,” in France the relationship is described as a marriage: a practical vision, and a romantic one. Van Middelaar describes the current marital state as one of moving house. “In a couple, in the middle of moving like now, there is a lot of irritability. They have been going through a difficult time since the start of the war, because it affects two of the three most difficult issues between Germans and French: energy and defense. The third issue would be money and the euro, but this is more or less resolved.”

The pandemic and subsequent bailout plans allowed the EU and the Franco-German engine to take a leap forward. But the war has exposed the gap in energy policy between France, which remains committed to nuclear power plants, and Germany, which is abandoning nuclear energy and rethinking its Russia-dependent model of recent decades. Differences have also emerged in military matters: France, which has a nuclear arsenal, claims to uphold the Gaullist tradition of providing a “balancing power” between the superpowers; Germany feels more aligned with NATO and Washington.

“The year 2022 is a mini-1989,″ says Van Middelaar, founder of the Brussels Institute for Geopolitics. “Maybe it is not so serious, but it belongs to this category of major events that affect all the balances within the continent, including the Franco-German balance. And if we remember all the difficulties the Franco-German marriage went through at that time, between Helmut Kohl and François Mitterrand, who, it must be remembered, were long-time friends and had worked together... last February, Macron and Scholz barely knew each other. There is neither the same trust nor the same intimacy between the two. This has to be taken into account as well.”

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