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Stürmer Michael, The Financial Times - 27 gennaio 1995
The political weight of the Franco-German relationship.


by Michael Stürmer (*)

SUMMARY: The author describes the historic development of the Franco-German relationship, and confirms that in the framework of a strengthening of the European construction, this relation will prove "essential to the continent's future". For that reason, people in Britain hoping to exploit Franco-German differences should not expect much. (Financial Times, 27-1-1995)

The special relationship that exists between Germany and France has earned the respect but also the occasional irritation of other European countries. The ties will remain even though, since the fall of the Berlin Wall, they have become less exclusive. One thing is certain: if Europe is to be more than simply a de luxe free trade zone, the Franco-German relationship - special or not - will be essential to the continent's future.

The nature of the links between Bonn and Paris has changed over time. While Germany was divided and vulnerable, France was one of the four powers that guaranteed Europe's post-war order.

In 1990, the French political class needed some persuading from Washington, as well as the shock of reality, to accept that German unity was unstoppable, Congratulations were sent to Bonn just in time.

Thanks to the joint efforts of the incumbents in Bonn, Paris and Brussels, the Maastricht treaty, agreed in 1991, promised a new equilibrium in the European Community in general and for the Bonn-Paris relationship in particular.

Since then, the Mitterrand-Delors-Kohl trio has kept Europe on track, signalled by the effort to draw up a common agenda for the German and French EU presidencies in 1994-95. But with Delors no longer in Brussels and Mitterrand in decline there are questions about the alliance's solidity.

Whoever is the next French president will have to redefine the substance and modus operandi of the Paris-Bonn link. But Mitterrand's successor will also value a relationship to which - as both sides know - there is no alternative.

France may work hard to preserve its role as chevalier seul in international affairs. The paradox is that this role can be upheld only through close economic and monetary co-operation with Germany.

On the wider European stage, Mr Jacques Santer, Mr Delors' successor, faces a balancing act. The Commission's jurisdiction is growing, yet in tomorrow's Europe the nation state will certainly not be reduced to a shadow. Mr Santer's Luxembourg heritage - above all, that small country's skill in dealing with the "elephants" it has for neighbours - will be an asset.

As for Germany, Chancellor Kohl is still in power, but his country remains a reluctant leader. The biggest economic player in Europe would like a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, yet it has still to find a role in the management of world affairs.

The psychology of the Franco-German relationship is beset by an intriguing asymmetry. In France, expressing basic doubts about Germany is considered poor style but is recognised as a potential source of votes. This was evident in the Maastricht referendum in France in September 1992, when both the Oui and the Non campaigns relied on arguments which were less than friendly to Germans.

In Germany, by contrast, anti-French language, either on stage or off, is viewed not only as politically incorrect but also as extremely foolish.

Over the last year or so, there have been clear divergences between France and Germany. The Germans view co-opting the countries of central and eastern Europe into the EU as being in their national interest as well as a wider European concern. France, on the other hand, is more worried about trouble in the Mediterranean basin, from Casablanca to Amman.

At a practical level, both countries believe in operating a "core group" for European integration, but on wider questions their philosophies tend to differ. The Germans still see Nato as the hub of European security, while the French are more ambivalent towards the alliance. While the Bonn government is slow to accept that the Europe of the future will consist of nation states, the French have never had doubts on this.

People in the UK, however, out to capitalise on these disagreements, should not to expect too much. Despite the changes wrought by unification, the Franco-German bedrock, toughened by 40 years of co-operation, remains strong.

France was persuaded by the US after the second world war that European security depended on West German entry to the club. The neighbours on the other side of the Rhine, for their part, obliged the French by becoming the sort of Germans the French had always wanted: divided, integrated into Europe, without nuclear weapons or an army general staff.

No longer down and out, Germany became well-intentioned, well-behaved and, along the way, regained its economic strength. France, for its part, nursed its nightmares over Anglo-Saxon power but suffered from imperial overstretch while its economy was outperformed along the Rhine and the Ruhr.

The Elysée treaty of 1963 on Franco-German co-operation was an attempt by two old men, Charles de Gaulle and Konrad Adenauer, to salvage their dreams. Adenauer wanted to bind his successors to western Europe and to prevent the two nations from competing for favours at the Kremlin's door. De Gaulle wanted to harness Germany's industrial muscle to aid France's oversized defence effort. Above all, he wanted a companion in the revolt against America - a sad misunderstanding of the needs of divided Germany's strategic position.

How would Adenauer and de Gaulle have reacted to the present state of affairs? They would have accepted that both France and Germany are inescapably subject to the changing strategic configuration in a post-cold war world. That is why, in defence, the Franco-German relationship is being complemented by a Franco-British one. This is a development Germany should support, since the sun is setting on the pax Americana. A ménage ŕ trois of Germany, France and Britain is needed if a meaningful common foreign and security policy is to be agreed.

Signs of European divergence are not hard to find: the rifts over whether Europe should tilt to the east or to the south, the clash of interests between free-traders and protectionists, and the differences over whether Europe should look to its own defence or depend mainly on Nato.

But against this background, strong ties between France and Germany can improve the climate for co-operation across Europe. As long as the Franco-German relationship is not an exclusive one, it deserves another life cycle.

(*) The author is director of Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik, the German foreign affairs and defence policy institute.

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