Hollande and Merkel have become a formidable team as Europe’s leaders – but how long will it last?
No formative factor in international affairs is as strong as events – at least when it comes to the attitudes of political actors. In times of crisis, bonds are formed between heads of state or government, and mutual trust is built and sustained.
The first six weeks of 2015 have seen the return of a special relationship between the leaders of France and Germany to a degree that was not foreseen by most observers of bilateral affairs.
The first six weeks of 2015 have seen the return of a special relationship between the leaders of France and Germany to a degree that was not foreseen by most observers of bilateral affairs. President François Hollande and Chancellor Angela Merkel were not close throughout the first half of Hollande’s presidency. They showed respect for each other, but no particular liking. Their policy preferences in the European Union appeared to differ significantly, and the driving role that the two countries had often played by overcoming their differences appeared to have run out of steam.
Then, events turned things upside down. First, the terror attacks on Paris on 7 January deeply shocked the French public and the political class. Then came the election of the radical left-right government in Greece less than three weeks later, which threatened to plunge the eurozone into another deep management crisis. After that, on 11 February, the Franco-German push for another Minsk agreement concluded, which had been necessitated by the escalation of the war in eastern Ukraine. All three events had the potential to derail European affairs, which could have undercut the credibility of European leadership, and all three provided evidence of the vulnerability of Europe’s internal order and external security.
François Hollande’s public reputation seemed to be growing after the attack on Charlie Hebdo, but Angela Merkel’s standing was being severely tested.
François Hollande’s public reputation seemed to be growing after the attack on Charlie Hebdo, but Angela Merkel’s standing was being severely tested. Up until the Greek elections, her management of the eurozone crisis had carefully linked enhanced compliance with the treaties to financial commitments to sustain countries under excessive debt – a delicately spun web of obligations and assurances, which served to calm down fears among Merkel’s own electorate. Alexis Tsipras, through self-destructive moves, could have torn that web apart. To control that risk, Merkel needed to achieve consensus with the French president, not least to ensure that Italy’s Prime Minister Matteo Renzi was kept in line.
The war in eastern Ukraine came as a challenge to both leaders. Neither was convinced that Ukraine could win the conflict militarily; both anticipated that arming Ukraine would not change that in the short or medium term, but would reinforce the misguided belief among Ukrainian leaders that they could prevail and thus would further escalate the fighting. Arming Ukraine would hand the initiative to the United States, the United Kingdom, and also to Russia. It would likely destroy what might be used as a bridge to interact with the Kremlin, it would risk the fragile consensus among EU governments, and it would expose the split to European publics. Merkel felt that she had to take the risk of failure and political humiliation to prevent this scenario from emerging and to keep the EU/Germany at the helm. Hollande understood that she did not want to go it alone, that France’s role was unique in that no other EU leader could have filled it to the same effect, and that this was the hour to secure French and German indispensability in leading the EU.
The 17 tense hours in Minsk will shape each side’s perceptions of the other for years, adding a renewed lease of life to Franco-German relations in Europe.
Both risked a lot and won, in spite of the many weaknesses of Minsk II. This experience, combined with their joint responses to the challenges presented by Charlie Hebdo and by Greece, has profoundly changed their relationship. The 17 tense hours in Minsk will shape each side’s perceptions of the other for years, adding a renewed lease of life to Franco-German relations in Europe. In fact, this bilateralism is the only surviving element of the traditional informal infrastructure of EU politics. It brings to mind the agreement between Nicolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel on the eurozone bailout in Deauville in 2010, but in fact, it probably runs deeper in the current tandem. “Merkozy” remained a difficult arrangement, even though both sides continued to invest in it, as indicated by Merkel’s support for Sarkozy in his campaign for re-election.
Clearly, Berlin is no longer the junior partner in the relationship, as it used to be – economically stronger, fiscally potent, but politically constrained. But neither is it the senior partner, given its weaker role in international security. The tandem has entered a new stage, in which both possess leadership resources, albeit in different policy areas, but in which leadership is not clearly allocated – sometimes it is shared, at other times lost for lack of strategic consensus. Also, the relationship still seems to depend highly on the chemistry between leaders, which makes it less stable and predictable. It took over two years and three profound challenges for Merkel to reconnect strategically with Hollande. Now, the pairing is back and seems determined to lead – but for how long?
The EU’s two largest countries and its strongest coalition will be in election mode at the same time.
Both leaders will end their current term in 2017. The EU’s two largest countries and its strongest coalition will be in election mode at the same time. Hollande will seek re-election in the spring. Merkel’s Christian Democratic Party (CDU) appears to not have raised a candidate of her stature, which should lead the chancellor to seek a fourth term in the autumn of 2017, fulfilling the unwritten law of post-war German politics that chancellors never get to stage their own succession.
This timeline gives the Franco-German team one and a half years to shape its environment. The agenda on which to build strategic consensus is lengthy: Franco-German bilateralism will be tested on eurozone governance, with Greece struggling and general elections scheduled in several member states in the eurozone’s north and south. Internal security could become a divisive issue, given the pending French legislation on data collection and surveillance. Immigration, refugees, and the Schengen regime could easily become contentious issues on the EU agenda, with no robust agreement in place on the issue between France and Germany. Foreign policy, although a formative policy field this spring, contains several contested topics – one such being negotiations with Iran and the assessment of the framework agreement, which is indicative of wider divisions over policies on the Arab world and on Europe’s response to the ongoing crises and wars in the Middle East and North Africa.
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.