Europe’s Surprisingly Balanced Marriage
Germany and France are the center of the European integration project. France was originally the most powerful; however, due to unparalleled economic growth, Germany is now the heavyweight of Europe. This shift in dynamics caused speculation that the relationship is on the verge of a breakdown. This speculation is incorrect as the Franco-German alliance is as strong as ever.
The Franco-Germany relationship is the engine of the European integration project. After centuries of war on the European continent, culminating in the devastation of World War II, European nations searched for a way to eliminate inter-continental fighting. Europe’s leaders argued that economic integration was the first step to avoid future conflict, and believed it would eventually pave the way for a politically integrated union of European states. France and Germany, historic rivals and often bitter enemies, were at the heart of this hoped-for union designed to preserve peace. In the decades since, it has remained clear that both Germany and France see integration as the key to continued peace and prosperity in Europe.
There has been, of course, friction between the two partners since the European integration project began: for a long time, France feared Germany would become too economically and politically powerful, eclipsing its own position of power on the continent. French President Charles de Gaulle originally envisioned a Europe in which France and Germany would lead, but with France firmly holding the preeminent role. In the early years after World War II, Germany did play more of a supporting role to France as the German economy recovered and the country struggled to find its place in Europe. Today, however, the partnership looks quite different. Germany now sits in the driver’s seat as Europe’s strongest economy and staunchest advocate for austerity in the face of the eurozone crisis; while France now plays second fiddle with its economy nearly stagnant, unemployment hovering at 11 percent, and the government of Socialist President Francois Hollande increasingly unpopular. This shift in dynamics has caused speculation that the relationship is “on the verge of a breakdown.” This speculation is incorrect: the Franco-German alliance remains the heart of modern Europe and it is as strong as ever.
Recent events have clearly demonstrated the enduring strength of the Franco-German bond, despite economic policy disagreements. Indeed, the two European powers tend to disagree on most economic policies, especially austerity. On the Greek debt crisis, for instance, Germany has taken a more hardline stance with Greece, insisting that Greece must implement strict and unpopular austerity measures. German citizens and officials, loosing patience with Greek intransigence, feel that Germany has shouldered too much responsibility in fixing the economic failings of its fellow EU members. France, on the other hand, is more sympathetic toward Greece: France has experienced its own economic trouble and gives Greece credit for at least taking economic risks. Although the Greek crisis has certainly tested this most important European relationship, both France and Germany ultimately have the same goal: preserving European unity. Even though Germany was willing to consider a Grexit, both countries worked hard to ensure Greece remained in the eurozone. The partnership of France and Germany on working toward a resolution to the Greek debt crisis, despite their different economic stances, illustrates the enduring strength of their relationship: both France and Greece were able to take opposing stances without fear of the relationship breaking down. In fact, the crisis highlights exactly what makes the Franco-German partnership so functional: agreeing to disagree.
France and Germany have seen eye-to-eye on the Ukraine crisis, however, and their joint efforts have led Europe’s response: their leaders co-created a peace plan to end Russia’s aggression in Ukraine. Security matters, in contrast to economic strategies, are clearly an area of common ground between the two countries. In February, both Merkel and Hollande presented their peace plan to Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Petro Poroschenko, underlining a unified stance prioritizing diplomacy over military action. And when the United States floated the idea of arming Ukrainian rebels, both Merkel and Hollande emphatically disagreed with the U.S. suggestion. The German ambassador to the United States cautioned, “Let’s try our diplomacy before we embark on a path that might escalate tensions.” President Hollande confirmed his disapproval of arming Ukraine and Merkel agreed: “I am firmly convinced this conflict cannot be solved with military means.” Thus the Ukraine situation has strengthened the relationship as it has reminded France and Germany of what makes their partnership so important: a staunch belief in multilateral, diplomatic means of conflict resolution that uses military force only as a final resort.
Despite speculations to the contrary, the Franco-German relationship is indisputably just as strong, if not stronger, than ever. As Germany slid into the position of the most powerful European state, some analysts argued France was no longer fulfilling its half of the partnership and suggested Germany should look for a new partner. But none have been able to present a viable alternative to France. The United Kingdom—one of the most powerful countries in Europe—declined to join the eurozone, and Poland—another close ally—simply does not possess enough diplomatic clout or economic power. France is still one of the largest economies and most strategically important countries in Europe; Germany has simply grown larger and stronger.
Germany needs the robust partnership France offers to be able to lead Europe through all the challenges that the EU currently faces. And France needs Germany’s stalwart leadership to maintain the economic stability of the EU and to improve its own economic and political situation. All relationships ebb and flow: it is to be expected that Germany and France will continue to butt heads one minute and be in complete agreement the next. The Greek and Ukraine crises show that, despite disagreements, what is important is that each side recognizes fundamental rationale behind the Franco-German alliance and European integration. Germany and France are, indeed, stuck with each other.
Kathleen Taylor is a contributing editor for Charged Affairs with Young Professionals in Foreign Policy. She is based in the Washington, D.C. Metro Area.
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