Germany and France are the center of the European integration project. France was originally the most powerful; however, due to unparalleled economic growth, Germany is now in control. This shift in dynamics caused speculation that the relationship is on the verge of a breakdown. This speculation is incorrect as the Franco-German alliance is as strong as ever.
The Franco-German relationship has long been the engine of the European integration project. In the time before World War II, the two European powers were on opposing sides, almost perpetually sworn enemies. The end of the war changed that, as France was on the victorious Allies side and West Germany, part of the losing Axis side, began to democratize. In 1967, their relationship was further cemented as Germany and France, along with the other four founding members of the European Economic Community, signed the Treaty of Rome, laying the foundation for what would become the European Union (EU). There has, of course, been friction between the two partners: for a long time, France feared Germany would become too economically and politically powerful, eclipsing its position of power. French President Charles de Gaulle had a vision of Europe in which France and Germany would lead, but with France firmly in control. Germany, similarly, played more of a support role to France in the early years after World War II as its economy was recovering and it was struggling to reconcile its place in Europe. Today, the partnership looks different with Germany as Europe’s strongest economy and staunchest advocate for austerity in the face of the eurozone crisis, in the driver’s seat. France is now playing second fiddle: its economy is nearly stagnant, unemployment is hovering at 11 percent, and the government of Socialist President Francois Hollande is increasingly unpopular. This shift in dynamics caused speculation that the relationship is “on the verge of a breakdown.” This speculation is incorrect, however; the Franco-German alliance is the center of Europe and is as strong as ever.
The Greek debt crisis has tested the strength of the Franco-German bond as Germany has taken a more hardline stance with Greece, insisting that Greece must implement strict and unpopular austerity measures. France, on the other hand, has become more sympathetic to Greece as it has experienced its own economic trouble and gives Greece credit for at least taking risks. While the most important European relationship is being put to the test, both countries ultimately have the same goal: European unity. Even though Germany was willing to consider a Grexit, both countries worked hard to ensure Greece didn’t leave the euro. So while the partnership has been tested, the Greek debt crisis has actually strengthened the relationship as both sides were able to take opposing stances without fear of the relationship breaking down. In fact, the crisis highlights what makes the partnership so functional: agreeing to disagree.
Throughout the Ukraine crisis, Germany and France have been usually on the same side of debates, with their leaders co-creating a peace plan to end Russia’s aggression in Ukraine. Security matters, it seems, brings the two together. In February, both Merkel and Hollande traveled to present their plan to Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Petro Poroschenko, underlining a unified opinion of first using diplomacy before resorting to military action. When the United States floated the idea of arming Ukrainian rebels, both emphatically disagreed with the potential policy. The German Ambassador to the U.S. cautioned, “Let’s try our diplomacy before we embark on a path that might escalate tensions.” Chancellor Merkel agreed: “I am firmly convinced this conflict cannot be solved with military means.” President Hollande confirmed his disapproval of arming Ukraine. The Ukraine situation has strengthened the partnership as it reminded France and Germany of what makes their partnership so important: Both of their 21st century approaches to conflict involve first using multilateral, diplomatic means and using military options as a final resort.
The Franco-German relationship is indisputably just as strong, if not stronger, than ever. As Germany slid into the position of the most powerful European state, it has been said that France is not fulfilling its half of the partnership. Analysts speculated Germany should look for a new partner. Who would that be? The United Kingdom, one of the most powerful countries in Europe, is not committed enough to the EU, and Poland, another close ally, simply does not have enough clout or economic power. Germany needs a strong France to be able to lead Europe and France needs Germany’s stalwart leadership to improve its economic and political situation. All relationships ebb and flow; it is to be expected that Germany and France will continue to butt heads one minute and be in complete agreement the next. As was shown in the Greek crisis, all great relationships have disagreements. But, as was shown in the Ukraine crisis, what is important is that each side recognizes the other’s value and ensures the relationship is balanced. Germany and France are, indeed, stuck with each other.