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COMMENTARY

Germany in the EU after Merkel: A view from France






Franco-German relations / COMMENTARY
Corentin Gorin

Date: 17/02/2022
Angela Merkel’s departure heralds the end of an important cycle in Franco–German relations. But this does not necessarily mean a major turning point in Germany’s role in the EU, particularly alongside France.

Angela Merkel left office in early December 2021. She outlasted four French presidents and managed many European crises, often in tandem with France. Yet the ‘Merkel era’ did not leave behind any visionary European achievements. Merkel’s lack of strategic vision has frequently been criticised in France, while her crisis management skills and formidable flair for defending her country’s interests were largely admired, even by those concerned by the increasing German economic dominance in Europe. From a French perspective, her ability to manage crises is her main legacy.

Even more so post-Brexit, France and Germany remain Europe’s driving forces. But the two countries often have opposing national interests. Several crucial topics are likely to be the source of conflict in the ‘post-Merkel era’, such as financial and budgetary politics, the European Green Deal, defence and security, migration, and EU enlargement. The COVID-19 crisis and rising tensions between the EU, China and the US highlight the need to progress on four issues: (i) financial and budgetary issues; (ii) the green and digital transitions; (iii) Europe’s role in the world; and (iv) immigration policy. On a positive note, the new German coalition is already showing a greater openness than its predecessor to work closely with France.

A less frugal Germany?

Financial and budgetary issues have long been a bone of contention between France and Germany. Reputedly frugal and uncompromising at the height of the Greek crisis, Merkel exited the Chancellery as the advocate of fiscal orthodoxy in the COVID-19 crisis, leaving behind other countries like the Netherlands, Finland and Austria. Germany, alongside France, led the way to an unprecedented recovery plan to deal with the effects of the pandemic-induced economic crisis. For the first time ever, and together with France, Germany agreed to the common fund, Next Generation EU. This was primarily thanks to the Social Democrats, who were already in Merkel’s grand coalition, and now are the largest governing party in the new traffic-light coalition. This may be proof that the new German coalition government is ready to find common ground with France and other European countries.

Some uncertainty still surrounds the new government coalition, such as on reforming the Stability and Growth Pact. Finance minister Christian Lindner and his Free Democratic Party (FDP) opposed changing the EU’s budgetary rules before the election. While the recently signed coalition treaty leaves the door open for adapting these rules, as requested by France, the FDP’s position seems resolute. But a meeting between Lindner and his French counterpart, Bruno Le Maire, last December suggests the possibility of agreement between the two countries, as both ministers showed goodwill and considered cooperation essential.

The green and digital transitions

Concerning the EU Green Deal, on 27 April 2021, France and Germany presented their national recovery plans, which include increased climate ambitions in line with the objectives set by the European Commission. But in the context of the green transition, France and Germany have made radically different choices, particularly on nuclear power. Germany plans to phase out nuclear power by 2022, whereas France remains one of the most nuclear-powered countries in Europe.

On 31 December 2021, the Commission published the EU taxonomy for sustainable investments, asking member states to take a position on the proposal to make natural gas and nuclear power key elements in the transition to renewable energy and climate neutrality. President Emmanuel Macron intends to pursue nuclear power, while Germany insists on including gas in the taxonomy. As Germany lacks natural gas resources, it depends on Russian supplies to carry out the energy transition. Energy policy is thus likely to remain a source of political conflict between France and Germany.

The 2019 Aachen Treaty provides the framework to deepen Franco–German relations in this field with new initiatives. In 2020, the Gaia-X project, originally led by French and German companies and supported by both governments, held out great hope for establishing rules of good conduct in cloud infrastructure, particularly in the face of US giants. Even if the project is now faltering and disappointing some of its members, especially given the overly important place that would be granted to American tech companies, the project shows that France and Germany can play a leading role in digital matters.

Germany lags behind other EU countries in the digital field in terms of, for example, the modernisation of its administrative services and high-speed internet. Via the European recovery plan, the new German coalition intends to make digitalisation one of its priorities. In the same sense, the French Presidency of the Council of the EU has put the digital transition at the heart of its major ambitions. On 25 January 2022, Macron and Chancellor Olaf Scholz met in Berlin to discuss the French Council Presidency. They promised to coordinate, with Germany pledging to fully support France’s development of the Council Presidency’s priorities, particularly the digital.

Europe’s role in the world

The subject of common defence is another long-standing source of Franco–German conflict. In fact, it might be the area where the dissonances are the greatest. As many observers point out, particularly in France, Germany is far from acquiring a military power that matches its economic strength. Despite its strong commitment to NATO, Germany still enjoys the comfort of ‘outsourcing’ its security to not only the US but also France (i.e. Sahel, Syria, Iraq). Berlin remains far from the NATO pledge to spend 2% of its GDP on defence and constantly postpones this objective.

Meanwhile, Macron is pushing for stronger strategic autonomy and independent defence at the EU level, convinced that US disengagement was not a Trump policy but rather a general trend. From a French perspective, Germany seemed to believe that President Joe Biden would bring back ‘normality’. But his retreat from Afghanistan without consulting his European allies, and the ‘sabotage’ of France’s submarine deal with Australia for the trilateral AUKUS security pact have convinced Europe that it needs to push for a stronger independent foreign policy.

This might not happen anytime soon with the new German government. Scholz, who presented himself as Merkel’s heir during the election campaign, does not desire revolutionary change in this area, especially as he governs with the Green party, which opposes more German military engagement. Implicitly acknowledging Scholz’ constraints, Macron has become more discreet on the subject. But now that the nature of threats is changing, and the concerns over security and defence are growing in the EU’s neighbourhood (i.e. Ukraine and Russia), France could legitimately expect more German engagement on EU foreign policy. 

A rapprochement in national immigration policies?

Germany and France face widely different situations regarding immigration. At 12%, France is below the OECD average of 13.6% in terms of the percentage of immigrants in its population, while the German rate is 16.2%. As stated in the coalition contract, the new government plans to make Germany a “modern immigration country”. Conversely, France faces an ongoing migration crisis on its maritime border with the UK, with an increased number of migrants trying to reach the island nation via France, leading to recurring tragedies and deaths.

However, France and Germany could work towards a rapprochement on certain points, which would also positively affect EU migration policy. For example, the traffic-light coalition wants to regulate the situation for third-country nationals living in Germany for five years without committing a crime and adhering to the democratic principles of the rule of law. They will be granted a temporary residence permit for one year. This measure is similar to the regularisation procedure for undocumented migrants in France.

Dealing with the migration issue at the European level and bilaterally between France and Germany is likely to be complicated during the French Council Presidency, especially because of the April presidential election in France. This political constraint leaves little hope of concrete progress on this subject, particularly given the diverging positions among member states. Tackling the issue will be even more difficult as migration is one of the most debated topics in the French election campaigns. It is unlikely that Macron will want to take up this issue when he is up for re-election.

A new relationship post-French election

Despite its differences, the Franco–German relationship will remain the driving duo for Europe. And as the post-Merkel era takes shape, the new, strongly pro-European coalition government already indicates a desire to change certain German positions at the European level.

However, to fully foresee the future of Franco–German relations, it will be necessary to await the result of the French election. The polarised debate and important number of radical candidates mean that it poses a greater risk to European integration and the Franco–German relationship than the German election did in September 2021.

The signals sent by the Scholz government may give a glimpse of what the Macron–Scholz relationship would be like if the French president is re-elected. French experts and diplomats have noted that the European ambitions of the German coalition agreement are convergent with those in Macron’s notorious Sorbonne speech in 2017: budgetary flexibility, strategic sovereignty, transnational lists for European Parliament elections. The French Council Presidency should allow France to push its agenda forward, but this will not happen without a major commitment from Germany. The pro-European programme of the new coalition allows us to be resolutely optimistic.

Corentin Gorin is the Director-General of EuropaNova.

The European Policy Centre continues to contribute to the analysis of Germany’s EU policy at this pivotal moment in German politics, with a series of Commentaries running from July 2021 to February 2022. It will feature views from various European capitals on post-Merkel expectations.

The support the European Policy Centre receives for its ongoing operations, or specifically for its publications, does not constitute an endorsement of their contents, which reflect the views of the authors only. Supporters and partners cannot be held responsible for any use that may be made of the information contained therein.


Photo credits:
JOHN THYS / POOL / AFP

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