Despite occasional difficulties, the Franco-German friendship is an incredible accomplishment. Both sides must continue to work hard at it, says DW's Bernd Riegert.
Franco-German friendship should never become routine - not even 50 years after the signing of the Elysee Treaty by French president Charles de Gaulle and West German chancellor Konrad Adenauer.
Every generation of politicians and every new generation of French and German youth must work hard to earn this friendship. Those who harbor even the slightest doubt as to the key role that Germany and France play in European unity should visit the shocking Douaumont ossuary: the remains of 130,000 soldiers from many different nations who died on the Verdun battlefield during World War I. In 1984, French President Francois Mitterrand and German Chancellor Helmut Kohl met at this very cemetery and stood hand in hand - a picture of reconciliation that went around the world.
Numerous military cemeteries in France, Belgium and Germany attest to the past enmity between Germany and France. Out of the graves of the two world wars there grew a reconciliation which began in the late 1940s with the foundation of the first Franco-German associations and culminated in the bilateral accord in 1963.
It helps to put current problems in regular German-French political relations into perspective if one reflects on the very beginnings of the Franco-German friendship and the vision of French foreign Minister Robert Schuman in the 1950s.
It does not matter whether Madame Merkel and Herr Hollande get along well or are unable to talk to each other. What matters is that the people meet, that students get a feel for their neighbors, that the languages are studied and soldiers serve together, that there is trade, and that tourists can visit Berlin and Paris without stopping at borders and with a common currency in their pockets. It is true that at the highest political level, the personal relationship between the chancellor and the president is not that good at the moment. That, however, should not be overestimated.
There have always been such phases over the past 50 years. Even de Gaulle and Adenauer were not bosom buddies all the time. Chancellor Willy Brandt und President Georges Pompidou did not like each other. President Mitterrand and Chancellor Kohl were not immediate friends. Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and President Jacques Chirac only agreed over the need to distance themselves from the US. Chirac was fonder of Schröder's wife, Doris. The only real friends were Chancellor Helmut Schmidt and President Valery Giscard d'Estaing - well advanced in years, they still work for Europe, together.
What goes around comes around
What matters is that, thanks to the Elysee Treaty, consultations and negotiations continue at the working level. The treaty's clauses on foreign and defense policy have not even been fully implemented yet, and that calls for even more coordination. It is true that France and Germany currently differ in their approach to the euro debt crisis, but the overall direction is the same - and that is: more Europe!
There's not likely to be any significant new stimulus this year, however, as the French socialist Hollande expects a social Democrat to replace the German conservative Merkel after national elections this fall. Last year, Merkel openly campaigned for Hollande's political rival Sarkozy - betting on the wrong horse. What goes around comes around. For that reason, neither Berlin nor Paris will present any new political initiatives on the anniversary but rather, for the most part, well-behaved commemoration.
No matter which political party or coalition calls the shots, France and Germany must and will continue to be the motor of the EU. It is what all the politicians on the Spree and on the Seine want - and their European neighbors are well aware of it. They may complain that the Franco-German duo dictates terms, but if the two nations fail to lead, as they are doing now, they complain that Europe has lost its sense of direction. It will always be difficult for German chancellors and French presidents to balance expectation and demand.
The close cooperation between Germany and France - unique in the world - can serve as a role model for other countries that have not yet fully resolved their conflicts. One does not have to roam far: just look at the Balkans. Shouldn't it be possible to reconcile Serbs and Kosovans, Bosnians and Serbs, Macedonians and Greeks, Turks and Cypriots? Robert Schuman's vision must apply to all European states and possibly even beyond: making war between nations impossible by forging close ties. "Europe will not be made all at once, or according to a single plan," said Schuman in a declaration in 1950. "It will be built through concrete achievements which first create a de facto solidarity."
That is the goal towards which one must continue to work for the next 50 years - over and over again.