The European Union (EU) stares right into an uncertain future. Brexit proved the vulnerabilities of the EU and the inability of the Brussels-based intergovernmental bloc to keep its Member States together. But even without the rest of the world noticing, the EU might be headed towards an even bigger catastrophe-breakdown of the special Franco-German relationship. Paris and Berlin are moving in different directions, and if the trend holds, then the great European project could simply fall apart.
At the outset, it is to be kept in mind that the EU is built on two pillars- Germany and France. The great European project and the inception of EU itself was based on postwar Franco-German reconciliation. Both France and Germany were the founder and leading Member EU States. Today, the Franco-German relationship is seen as the driving force taking the great European project forward. France and Germany are even described as the “twin engines” or “core countries”.
In the post-war world order, or later the Cold War era, it actually made sense for Germany and France to come together. The wartime foes, therefore, decided to arrive at a common understanding and move Europe forward as a part of the larger Euro-Atlantic strategy. But it is often not understood that we are well past the post-war era or even the US-USSR Cold War era.
So, new issues such as the Chinese threat, immigration crisis and US-EU relationship dominate the European narrative now. And on these key factors, the “twin engines” clearly seem to be pushing in different directions which can, at least, potentially, rip apart the great European project.
The clearest dichotomy in the two biggest EU powers is lack of understanding on how to deal with the authoritarian world. Merkel-led Germany likes to think of Russia as Europe’s real foe and of China as an overbearing trade partner at the most. So, you will see the Merkel administration relentlessly pushing for more and more sanctions against Russia, while Berlin tries to transform the paper Dragon through trade.
On the other hand, France thinks of China as a real enemy. French President Emmanuel Macron has even shown willingness to stitch an alliance with Indo-Pacific powers like India and Australia to check the Middle Kingdom’s disruptive rise. Also, unlike Merkel, the French President has favoured engagement with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in order to reset Franco-Russian ties.
Apart from the authoritarian world, France and Germany still differ on how to deal with the radical threat next door posed by Turkey’s rabble-rouser President, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Macron wants to cut Ankara to size in all theatres of conflict such as the Eastern Mediterranean, Nagorno-Karabakh and Libya. In fact, Erdoğan and Macron are sworn enemies of each other.
But Germany and Turkey seem to have a thing going for each other, though Berlin keeps releasing token statements criticising Turkey’s aggresive behaviour. Ankara has emerged as a real war-monger and its actions threaten even EU Member States like Greece and Cyprus. But Germany goes soft on Ankara. Recently, the Merkel administration even shot down a plea from Athens to impose an arms embargo on Turkey.
Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias said, “Unfortunately, Germany’s soft approach to Turkey has failed […] Berlin’s policy towards Ankara can be described as ‘appeasement’. The Germans tried to appease the Turks and this did not succeed. This is clearly shown by the sailing of the Oruç Reis.”
In fact, Merkel and Macron also differ in their perception of Europe’s historical, transatlantic ally- the United States of America. Under Trump, the US kept moving away from the NATO and European allies towards the Indo-Pacific.
Now, it is unclear if there would be a reset in US-EU ties, in case Biden comes to power. Macron thinks that EU cannot go back to relying on the US under Biden. The French President said, “The United States will only respect us as allies if we are earnest, and if we are sovereign with respect to our defence.”
Germany however doesn’t seem to share this view. German Defence Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer opined that it is an “illusion” to think that the EU can replace Washington’s role in upholding European Continent’s security. Kramp-Karrenbauer’s remarks evoked a sharp response from Macron, who called German Defence Minister’s remarks a “historical misinterpretation.”
Germany and France did share a special relationship when the geopolitical circumstances created ample room for a common course of action between the two European powers. But now, Berlin and France are drifting apart. Macron and Merkel have managed to ensure that their differences don’t come out in the open. But it might be only a matter of time, when the Franco-German friendship becomes unsustainable and causes an irreparable rift in the great European project.