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Franco-German relations under pressure on Elysee anniversary

January 22, 2023

As France and Germany celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Elysee Treaty, there's mounting pressure for the two countries to revamp their cooperation and leadership within the EU.

Olaf Scholz and Emmanuel Macron
Scholz and Macron are under pressure to bring Berlin and Paris closer together againImage: Sarah Meyssonnier /REUTERS

France and Germany on Sunday will celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Franco-German Elysee Treaty, the document that set a roadmap for bilateral cooperation between Paris and Berlin in foreign, defense and cultural policies.

France's Emmanuel Macron and Germany's Olaf Scholz will give speeches at the prestigious Paris Sorbonne University with the presidents of both parliaments laying down a wreath at the Pantheon mausoleum.

In the afternoon, the heads of state and lawmakers from both countries will convene for a bilateral Cabinet meeting at the Elysee, the residence of the French president.

"The ceremony will underline how vibrant the Franco-German relationship is and that we are jointly moving forward in Europe," an Elysee spokeswoman told the press in the run-up to the meeting.

European flags outside the EU Parliament in Strasbourg
Amid the many member states, France and Germany are often seen as the EU's driving forceImage: Philipp von Ditfurth/dpa/picture alliance

"We will discuss the big topics of our cooperation," she said, pointing towards defense, industrial policy, energy, EU reform, and immigration. "We made good use of the past few months to make progress in these areas."

Yet the events will be closely watched by the public and there is pressure on leaders to deliver some actual results, commentators say. 

Tensions between Berlin and Paris

The last bilateral Cabinet meeting, originally scheduled for this past October, was canceled — or, as France was quick to stress, "pushed back" — despite the fact that the Elysee Treaty requires one such meeting per year.

The scheduling change was the climax of months of increasingly difficult ties between the two sides.

During that time, Germany, among other things, signed a deal for a new European air defense system that didn't include France — spurning Paris' own joint initiative with Italy.

For its part, France agreed on a new hydrogen and gas pipeline with Spain and Portugal, disregarding a project favored by Germany. Macron also publicly scolded Germany for "isolating itself."

But that canceled ministerial meeting turned out to be a wake-up call, according to Stefan Seidendorf, deputy director of Ludwigsburg-based think tank German-Franco Institute (DFI).

"Berlin government officials were astonished by the public pressure the 'delay' created," he told DW.

"They had thought that the Franco-German relationship would just automatically continue on a good track, but that wasn't the case," he explained.

Subsequently, there was a string of bilateral meetings by both countries' finance, economics and foreign ministers to mend the rocky relationship.

Elysee Treaty 'works well'

Seidendorf said that behind the scenes, bilateral task forces were also bustling.

"That just shows that the Elysee Treaty works well — no other bilateral relationship is being so closely monitored by the public and has such an extensive, invisible infrastructure that can be activated in times of crisis," the political scientist said.

And yet, that extra effort was needed, believes Eric-Andre Martin, general secretary at the Study Committee on Franco-German Relations (Cerfa) at Paris-based think tank French Institute of International Relations (Ifri).

"People felt both countries had missed a chance when they didn't meet last year and observers now have high expectations regarding Sunday's meeting," he told DW. "France and Germany will need to agree on a common roadmap, for example in the areas of energy or economic policies, and very concrete projects."

A united response to US protectionism?

The latest diplomatic incident was in early January, when Macron single-handedly announced France would provide light tanks to Ukraine, preempting by one day a German-American declaration that the two countries would deliver combat vehicles to Kyiv.

"The three heads of state were supposed to make a joint announcement, but Macron rushed ahead, thinking that if he didn't push, nothing would happen," explained Seidendorf.

The analyst reckons the January episode makes a joint agreement on defense matters at Sunday's meeting highly unlikely.

"My guess is they'll rather come up with a more far-reaching response to the US Inflation Reduction Act (IRA)," he said.

Last August, the US Congress agreed to a $430 billion (€398 billion) package of tax cuts and subsidies meant to benefit companies active in the sustainable development sector. Europe largely sees the IRA as a protectionist attempt to lure investment back to the United States.

This prompted Germany and France to call for a European response to the legislation in December.

"Paris and Berlin could also agree on a new kind of cooperation in the energy sector — for example an initiative for a European hydrogen pipeline," Seidendorf added.

The Elysee has confirmed hydrogen will be on Sunday's agenda.

Is the EU's Franco-German engine still running?

But Barbara Kunz, a senior researcher and an expert on Franco-German relations at the Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy (IFSH) at Hamburg University, does not believe the upcoming meeting — or the Franco-German relationship — holds great promise.

"France and Germany have been trying to reach a strategic level in their cooperation for decades, but that's never worked," she told DW.

Kunz puts these difficulties down to a lack of mutual understanding and deep structural differences. When it comes to energy, France continues to largely bank on nuclear energy, whereas Germany will soon switch off its last nuclear reactors and increasingly turn to renewables.

Cooling towers at a nuclear power plant in Golfech, France
While Germany wants to turn to renewables, France is sticking with nuclear energyImage: Jean Pierre Jost

"The only thing the two countries jointly excel at is crisis management," says Kunz, but adds, "The current crisis over the Ukraine war further underlines how far apart Paris and Berlin are."

"Germany seems determined to go back to fully relying on NATO and is willing to make the necessary investment for that, while France is aiming for a European solution within Macron's so-called 'strategic autonomy,'" she said.

Kunz sees the so-called Franco-German engine as a thing of the past. France and Germany have traditionally been seen as consensus makers within the EU: once the two of them find an agreement, all other EU member states align behind that compromise.

"But now, the 27 member states form various groups of allies depending on the topic," she said.

However, Joseph de Weck, Europe fellow at the Philadelphia-based think tank Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI), thinks France and Germany will continue to lead the way in Europe.

Ukrainian soldiers stand on and near tanks positioned in a wooded area near Bakhmut, Ukraine
Could Ukraine's need for western arms help bring Paris and Berlin back together again?Image: Vladyslav Smilianets/REUTERS

"The misunderstandings over the past few months were also down to the countries' entirely different power structures — Macron can largely decide by himself, whereas Scholz has to consult with his coalition partners and parliament," de Weck told DW.

He thinks the Ukraine war is bringing the two partner countries closer together.

"Polls show that the French and the Germans largely agree regarding sanctions against Russia and arms deliveries," de Weck explained.

DFI expert Seidendorf shares this continued belief in the Franco-German engine.

"I don't think the EU's center of power has shifted east," he said. "That might be where the current problems and important parts of our energy infrastructure are, but the political, economic and military power remain" in western Europe.

"A compromise between France and Germany can still bring together all EU member states, as long as these two countries represent two rather opposing views."

Edited by: Jon Shelton