With the rest of Europe preoccupied with the van Rompuy and Ashton appointments, the French Europe Minister, Pierre Lellouche, picked the best time to announce some bad news: there will no joint Franco-German minister.
Everyone knows that the best time to announce bad news is when no one is listening. The French Europe Minister, Pierre Lellouche, may have had this in mind when, with Europe preoccupied with the appointment of the relatively unknown figures of Herman van Rompuy and Catherine Ashton as the new leaders of the EU, he announced that France and Germany had abandoned the idea of creating a new position of a joint Franco-German minister. After all, he may have thought, after one piece of bad news for Europe, no one will notice another.
The most striking thing about Lellouche's announcement last Thursday, apart from its timing, was the way he distanced himself from the proposal as if it was someone else's idea. In fact, Lellouche had himself strongly lobbied for it to become reality on the occasion of the 46th Anniversary of the Elysée Treaty in January. The proposed new minister would have attended cabinet meetings in both France and Germany and co-ordinated common security, energy, economic and social policy.
The idea behind the proposal was to demonstrate that, twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Franco-German tandem was still in good working order. Paris was even prepared to make the 11th November - which until now has commemorated the battle of Verdun in World War I - into a ‘Franco-German Friendship' day. In a society as history-conscious as France, this would have been a huge symbolical gesture - which is perhaps why it didn't happen in the end.
Now the idea of a joint minister has also been abandoned. The truth is, the symbolism of the Franco-German relationship that once drove European integration has become empty. In fact, the French were so desperate to make a symbolic gesture precisely to hide the lack of agreement with Germany on substance. The French fear that, with Europe getting bigger and more complicated and Germany feeling increasingly strong on its own, the Germans are gradually losing interest in the European project. The Germans, on the other hand, have been getting more and more impatient with what they see as a lack of French seriousness about policy.
The suggestion of a Franco-German Minister was a sincere attempt by the French to recreate momentum towards further political integration in Europe. It was an interesting reverse of the situation in 1994, when, in the Schäuble-Lamers paper, Germany proposed the idea of a ‘core Europe', which France rejected. This time, Germany did not openly reject the proposal as France did in 1994, but it was so reluctant to pursue it that France eventually decided to quietly abandon it.
There are, of course, genuine legal problems with the idea of a Franco-German ministerial post. In Germany, for example, the cabinet does not have the same status as it does in France. The French cabinet, on the other hand, is not accountable to the parliament in the same way as the German cabinet is. It may also have been difficult to precisely define the role of such a ministerial post. But France and Germany have overcome much bigger problems in the past in order to make European integration happen. Those days, however, are apparently long gone. "There is more that divides us than what unites us", as a German civil servant recently put it. It seems that the Germans had no desire to paper over these differences by creating a new symbol of Franco-German unity. At least they were being honest.
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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.