Berlin and Paris long struggled to find common ground. But now they’ve discovered a new level of unity and could motivate others to take up joint projects, believes Christoph Hasselbach.
Until the end of last year, it was difficult to imagine that the current governments of Germany and France would find common projects any time soon. They seemed too far apart. In terms of economic policy, French President Francois Hollande opted for state-funded stimulus packages, protective measures against globalization, and he proposed a new maximum tax on the rich - with disastrous consequences. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, on the other hand, focused on boosting competitiveness. She feels vindicated by the positive economic data for Germany.
France has launched military initiatives on its own in its traditional areas of influence in Africa. In that respect, Francois Hollande, a Socialist, has continued the policy of his conservative predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy, while Angela Merkel has drawn her own conclusions from Germany's involvement in Afghanistan and has pursued a policy of enabling governments to defend themselves, by exporting German weapons rather than deploying Bundeswehr soldiers to far-away regions. Those two examples are the most striking contrasts in the two countries' policymaking.
Hollande to implement German-style reforms
The stumbling blocks remained in place even after the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) became a part of the new coalition government in Berlin last September. The atmosphere improved slightly, as Hollande hoped that German austerity policy would be eased somewhat as a consequence. But there was no major change in substance. German Social Democrats are a different breed than French Socialists, after all. It's the irony of history that it was a chancellor of the SPD, Gerhard Schröder, who implemented crucial economic reforms in Germany with the ‘Agenda 2010' package of measures, which Merkel is now benefiting from and which - incidentally - are now being watered down again by her grand coalition between conservative CDU/CSU parties and the SPD.
Hollande's 180-degree turn in economic policy at the beginning of the year was the decisive step toward rapprochement between the two. At least in theory, it meant that he largely adopted the German position in this field. But he has yet to deliver. France's economy has been losing international competitiveness and global market shares.
The government in Berlin has breathed a sigh of relief and now hopes that France can overcome its weakness, which is directly impairing Germany. But Hollande's announcement also forces the German government to act and offer something in return. Germany's latest plans of pursuing a more offensive foreign and defense policy in the future have a lot to do with France. Hollande, who is a battered figure at home, can seize the opportunity to tell his people ‘Voilà, Berlin has given me something in return.' And yet the planned readjustment of German foreign policy is, at this point in time, equally mere theory.
New symbols of unity
Both countries will not, however, fundamentally change their respective roles. Germany will likely stay an economic giant for a while, and keep its role as Europe's main player. France will remain the natural leading power when it comes to military interventions, like the ones in West Africa. Nevertheless, both countries have stopped working against each other, and are instead trying to complement one another.
The Franco-German relations were probably at their lowest point a few years ago, when Francois Hollande openly gathered European allies around him - in opposition to Merkel's austerity policy. And this year, he complained about a lack of support for his Africa interventions. Talk of Franco-German unity at times sounded like utter mockery.
Fortunately, those times are over. The planned deployment of parts of a Franco-German brigade to Mali is a symbol of this new collaboration. As is the fact that Merkel and Hollande have assumed a common position on the latest bloodshed in Ukraine and fact that their foreign ministers travel to crisis regions together. The two-piece unity can of course not replace common European policymaking. But the Franco-German engine has been revved up again and it has the potential to set many things in motion.