A last station for the Franco-German locomotive?

In her first meeting at the beginning of Germany’s rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union in the second semester 2020 Chancellor Merkel received French President Emmanuel Macron in the Meseberg Castle. This meeting did not yield any major new initiatives, in contrast with the joint press conference a few weeks earlier when they announced their support of a 500 billion euro recovery grants programme, but suggests that Berlin and Paris remain strongly aligned in trying to achieve a recovery deal as soon as possible and possibly before the end of July. The meeting can thus be interpreted essentially for its symbolic allure, but as a symbol, the Meseberg castle is rather remembered for the fiasco of an ambitious Franco-German initiative for the reform of the Euro area in 2018. 

The fact that Merkel chose to hold this meeting in the same venue that has been associated with her cold reaction to the bold European agenda of the then newly elected French president could be an attempt to celebrate a relaunch of a close cooperation between the German and French executives. This has two implications for the analysis. Firstly, it calls for a discussion of the Franco-German leadership in the current European project. Secondly, it calls for a revision of the EU agendas of the French and German leaders as they start looking for key domestic deadlines.

Franco-German leadership after Brexit: sufficient again?

For decades, the Franco-German relation has been the engine of EU integration. When both countries agreed on new policy or treaty issues, they could make progress even in spite of reservations by other partners that were best advised to seek opt-outs and delays rather than direct resistance. However with enlargements and a perception of an ever growing strategic distance between the two capitals – often related to the end of the cold war and symbolically encapsulated in the ever declining number of pupils studying the other partner’s language in high school – the Franco-German relationship was seen as essential but not sufficient to engineer change in the EU.

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With the exit of the UK from the EU, states reluctant to further integration – such as the Frugal 4 in relation to the common debt – have lost a key partner in blocking coalitions and by a mere mechanic effect the Franco-German tandem could try to play again the role of major engine. So far, the relation between Merkel and Macron has been characterised by kind words and grand speeches, but the siding of Germany with the frugal alliance in finance matters during the euro-crisis has so far made dreams of Franco-German leadership not to take-off. 

The Covid-19 crisis appears so far as more relevant than Brexit in the reactivation of the partnership, but it also raises doubts. Firstly, whether renewed high-level cooperation would be at the expense of other partners, in particular of the cohesion of the internal market. The announcement by the Commission that state aid rules will be alleviated during the pandemic could be a temptation for the governments of the two largest member states to promote Franco-German industrial champions or a repatriation of investments as suggested by the French president. Secondly, it is unclear whether the window of opportunity for cooperation opened by the pandemic could last. Not only the interests of the two governments in relation to the structure of the Eurozone, conditionality of grants and national reform policies is likely to diverge again in the future, but also significant domestic difficulties can arise in the coming years.

A matter of internal politics – spoiler alert

If you have watched season 3 of the political thriller series Baron Noir, you will remember how central the relation with Germany is for centrist fictional president Amelie Dorendeu. This fiction simplifies a certain narrative of Franco-German cooperation: the two governments could compensate each other’s strategic flaws if France would be ready to share its global hard power with Germany and the Germans would give French views a better representation in economy and finance decisions. The condition for such trade is that it could only happen under exceptional political circumstances, and Covid-19 could be this moment. However, the fiction also shows how sensitive a political matter this relation is and the politicisation of European affairs is likely to make it more and more salient. In a sense, Macron shares with Dorendeu not only his former socialist leaning and centrist policies, but also a degree of dependence for domestic politics of his European initiatives. The Meseberg I fiasco illustrates the point: Macron does not only depend upon cooperation with the Chancellor to promote his view of the EU, but probably his eventual re-election depends on the ability to use European successes to accompany domestic reforms with EU-backed growth and investment.

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The timing of the Meseberg meeting is very revealing of the domestic needs of both leaders in this renewed cooperation. Although Mr Macron’s party weak performance in the last local election should not be over interpreted, his political platform has been unable to get a power base that would help him compete in the second part of his mandate. The polarisation on polity issues promoted by Mr Macron himself may contribute to dichotomise the next presidential election, making the idea that Marine le Pen could for the first time be a viable candidate for election haunt many conversations until 2022.

In the other side of the Rhine the idea of Eurosceptic forces having a say in government is probably far-fetched, but the renewed Franco-German alliance may not only be explained by the Chancellor’s reflection about her legacy in history books. More prosaically, the Chancellor may be thinking about the need to keep her moderate right to centre coalition together after the end of her fourth mandate. Her successor-designated resigned in February and the Karlsruhe ruling suggests that more European budgetary integration will not be an easy position once the leadership of Angela Merkel is gone. The window of opportunity to achieve a real Franco-German led recovery initiative may be open for a few months only.

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