The French president still wants to relaunch Europe. But after two years of courting Berlin, he is now searching for new ways to strengthen Europe’s sovereignty
Emmanuel Macron appears to have given up on Germany. Earlier this year, the French president admitted to being “not exactly on the same line” with Berlin on major issues like Brexit and climate change; while his recent flurry of diplomatic activity within and beyond Europe has been notable for its one-man nature. Perhaps there was only ever going to be so long that he could give a lead if the object of his desire never followed.
But, contrary to the judgment he will have made on assuming the presidency, going solo could mean that his ambitions to strengthen Europe – which remain undimmed – may now in fact have greater promise than before. From Iran to Russia, from the G7 to Brexit, from a digital tax to engaging with eastern Europe, Macron is trying to create new openings for protecting European interests. He is launching his own initiatives that, while not unilateral, are also decidedly not joint initiatives with Berlin. The president no longer believes that Germany’s political leaders will join him as proactive EU reformers and shapers of a crumbling world order. But, ironically, that is precisely how Franco-German relations – and Europe – are more likely to succeed.
The common narrative for years, even in Berlin, is that the German government has not got its act together on responding to Macron. But it might also be the fault of the president that the big European relaunch that was supposed to protect the EU from new internal and external threats has not happened. This is because, during his first two years in office, Macron’s European policy, as well as parts of his foreign and even domestic agendas, were based on a misreading of Germany’s domestic politics and of its European and foreign policy.
At first glance, this seems odd. After all, Macron’s term began with an explosion of Germanophilia, surrounding himself with possibly the ‘most German’ cabinet a French president could have. His ministers and advisers included Deutschlandversteher, like the prime minister himself, Edouard Philippe, who graduated high school in Bonn; and the president’s diplomatic adviser, Philippe Etienne, former ambassador to Berlin. Most importantly, there is economics and finance minister Bruno Le Maire. His views on fiscal and economic matters tend to be close to the Germans’; but he is also able to appear on prime-time television speaking fluent German and deploying the precise vocabulary of fiscal prudence and solidity that so warm the cockles of German hearts.
Macron’s early efforts – visionary speeches, the Treaty of Aachen, a Defence Union – were impressive but futile
On the domestic front, early in his presidency Macron set out ambitious economic reforms in the belief that the Germans would take notice and express renewed confidence in French reliability and economic strength. His goal was to convince Germany to make difficult choices that would strengthen Europe in hard times; in a truly joint effort, they would together restart the Franco-German engine, relaunch Europe, and defend the continent’s sovereignty in the new era of new global great power competition.
While there was occasional progress, such as a small-scale euro reform at the end of 2018, overall, Macron has failed to woo the Germans. His efforts – visionary speeches, the Treaty of Aachen, a Defence Union, and a European Intervention Initiative – were indeed impressive. But, comparing results with ambitions, Macron’s efforts appear rather futile. Despite all the Deutschlandversteher in the government’s ranks, the French leadership has misread Berlin in five ways:
- Angela Merkel: It is surprising that Macron was hoping to find in Angela Merkel an active partner for his reform efforts. She may have exhibited extraordinary skill in critical moments like the refugee and the euro crises, and she is certainly a shrewd and intelligent manager of a well-functioning country – just what Germans hope to see in their leader. But she is no visionary reformist.
- German politics: The German Social Democrats’ tendency for self-destruction has made it practically impossible for Macron to follow through on his reform plans. “Relaunch of Europe” was in fact the SPD-chosen title of the party’s grand coalition with the Christian Democrats. But it is valid in name only. The party’s ongoing crisis has made it impossible to see any meaningful change on the subject.
- Engineers, not pioneers: Macron has underestimated Germany’s difficult relationship with change. Big political change does not have positive connotations in Germany. It is not just a stereotype that Germans stress technical expertise and precision and that they are perfectionist engineers rather than pioneers. It also shapes their approach to politics: once you have spent time meticulously developing processes, and these have proven successful, you tend to be wary of innovation. One slight exception might be the German foreign minister Heiko Maas launching an alliance of multilaterists at UNGA in New York next week that the French have now joined – maybe. But it is still clear that pushing Germans towards reforms with visionary speeches like Macron’s at the Sorbonne was never likely to succeed.
- The status quo: It has not been in Berlin’s (short-term) interest to support EU reforms. The EU’s structures, the single market, and the euro have worked out very well for Germany, and the German government is still happy with the status quo. As long as the German economy is in decent health, it will be an uphill battle to ever convince Germany that it is time for change. Macron has not succeeded in demonstrating to German leaders and the public that issues with the economy are serious enough to take action. But he could have done. Take, for example, secondary sanctions. How will Germany protect its companies in the era of new great power competition without European reform and the capacity to enforce sanctions on a European level?
- French interests: Macron’s initiatives have been perceived by many in Berlin as a well-disguised pursuit of French interests that do not benefit Germany much. He could have much more ambitiously outlined what kind of concessions he would be willing to make in exchange for far-reaching German ones, to make clear that strengthening the EU is a double-sided effort. One example would be building a European nuclear deterrent based on French capabilities in exchange for German concessions on reforming the architecture of the euro. Instead, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, Merkel’s successor at the head of the CDU, replied with a request to revoke the French privilege of hosting the European Parliament in Strasbourg (without mentioning the German privilege of hosting the European Central Bank in Frankfurt).
Maybe at some point it will become possible to convince German leaders of bigger reforms and more active engagement in international politics. It is certainly not easier for Paris to do things on its own than with an equally engaged partner in Berlin. Fortunately, there continues to be great appetite in both capitals for a uniquely close partnership. But, given these five factors, a better strategy for the French president for now is indeed to go it alone more and leave German politicians in a position where they can point to ‘outside constraints’ and where they get to ‘lead from behind’. This new French activism may seem like it could weaken the Franco-German relationship. But for the moment it is more beneficial than pushing Germany into a place it does not want to be.
That big joint relaunch? Perhaps it can still happen – but some other time.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.