Franco-German Fragility Crisis Smolders Between Berlin and Paris

France and Germany have officially put aside their differences and renewed their landmark friendship accord, the Élysée Treaty. But their convergence only came after much bickering -- and a secret supplementary agreement. By DER SPIEGEL Staff

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron
Florian Gaertner/ Photothek/ Getty Images

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron


When German Chancellor Angela Merkel gives a speech, it always sounds more like a chore than a pleasure, regardless of how solemn or festive the occasion may be. It was the same story when she recently spoke in Aachen's historic Town Hall. Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron had traveled to this emblematic German city -- the former capital of Charlemagne's vast medieval empire that united much of Western and Central Europe -- to sign an updated version of the Franco-German friendship agreement, also known as the Élysée Treaty.

While Macron attested to the "romantic charm" of the German language and rhapsodized over the "vibrant, magical part of what brings us together today and makes us who we are," Merkel commented with her signature sobriety that it now boiled down to whether both parties had the determination to breathe life into the accord. "We'll have to work hard to understand each other better and better," said Merkel, "and endeavor to meet each other with a sense of respect for the other's culture."

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The German chancellor knew what she was talking about. Indeed, despite all the ceremony and pomp in Aachen, fundamental differences between the Germans and the French very nearly prevented them from reaching an agreement. To make matters worse, the two countries have trouble seeing eye to eye in an area that is particularly vital to Europe's future: forging a joint defense and common policies on arms exports. German and French negotiators only barely managed to save the deal thanks to a secret supplementary agreement.

Tenuous Relations

Throughout the history of the European Union, Germany and France have always served as both the leaders and the driving force of the European project. Close cooperation between the two countries is today more important than ever to counter everything from attacks by right-wing populists, to Russian subversion and American threats to impose import tariffs on European goods -- not to mention the looming Brexit chaos that threatens to engulf Europe.

But instead of going beyond mere proclamations and actually shaping a united approach for the future of Europe, Berlin and Paris are increasingly squabbling over minor details.

The crisis began more than a year ago, when Macron unveiled his vision for Europe in a speech at Sorbonne University in Paris -- and received nothing but silence in response from Berlin. Since then, the two partners have quarreled like an old married couple nearly every chance they get, bickering over everything from a joint budget for the eurozone to the details of the digital services tax on major tech companies like Google and Apple and emission limits for nitrous oxide. In addition, Germany's aspirations to become a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council are only halfheartedly supported by France. "I'm afraid there are a ton of issues where we have to get our act together," a government official in Berlin complained.

But their differences rarely surface as openly as they did in last week's conflict over the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline. The French had long embraced a neutralité politique, as they call it, to avoid sabotaging the German-Russian plans. But only a few weeks after the declarations of mutual devotion in Aachen, the two countries came within a hair's breadth of a major diplomatic spat.

The evening before a vote on a contentious EU directive that would have severely impeded the gas project, the French Foreign Ministry released a statement that left officials in Berlin completely taken aback.

"France intends to support the adoption of such a directive," it said in the press release. The Foreign Ministry showed little sympathy for the shocked reaction in Berlin, adding that the Germans were well aware of French reservations concerning the project, "but perhaps didn't want to hear them."

Nord Stream 2 symbolizes the utter lack of mutual understanding between both countries and how divergent the political approaches of the two partners tend to be. This is also painfully apparent in the conflict over a joint security and arms exports policy.

Diametrically Opposed

There's been much talk recently of Europe's "strategic autonomy," which is the official objective of EU defense policy. If the importance of NATO is likely to wane, Germany and France have no choice but to cooperate with each other, as officials in Paris and Berlin know perfectly well.

There is no lack of lofty intentions, but the reality of the relationship is an entirely different matter. "Germany and France have completely different traditions in some areas," says Michael Roth, state minister at the Foreign Ministry in Berlin.

When it comes to security issues, the Germans always initially react with restraint, and military missions by the German armed forces, the Bundeswehr, are viewed as a last resort. By contrast, France sees itself as a global power capable of restoring order around the world, and Paris views its military as a natural instrument of foreign policy.

These diametrically opposed views also clash on the issue of arms exports. France sees arms sales, even to problematic customers like Saudi Arabia, as a perfectly justifiable policy in defense of its national interests -- in other words, a raison d'état. Germany, on the other hand, places far more restrictive limits on exports of military hardware.

Before the signing of the agreement in Aachen, diplomats and state secretaries from Paris and Berlin argued for months over the question of whether strict German regulations on global arms sales should also apply to joint Franco-German defense projects.

They ultimately had to resort to a secret agreement, signed at the beginning of the year, to keep the talks from failing. This was evidently modeled after the Schmidt-Debré accord, which was signed in 1972 by then-German Defense Minister -- and later German Chancellor --- Helmut Schmidt and his French counterpart, Michel Debré. The agreement stipulated that neither side could block the export of jointly developed weapons systems.

'Direct Interests'

Similarly, the Merkel-Macron agreement states that with common projects neither government shall raise objections to exports by the other side. "The parties will not oppose a transfer or export to a third country proposed by one of the cooperating states," as it says in the first clause of the two-page document, "except on an exceptional basis, where their direct interests or national security are compromised."

This represents an enormous concession by the Germans. It gives France a surprising amount of freedom to do business with jointly developed arms systems, such as the planned Franco-German tank and a new fighter jet. However, the term "direct interests" allows sufficient interpretive leeway for a German veto.

German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen (right) and her French counterpart Florence Parly pose next to a drone made by a consortium of European aerospace contractors.
AFP / Getty Images

German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen (right) and her French counterpart Florence Parly pose next to a drone made by a consortium of European aerospace contractors.

And what happens if the two sides disagree? The agreement is exceedingly nebulous on this point. In the event of a dispute, Berlin or Paris are to "inform the other party as soon as possible and within at most two months of learning about the proposed transfer or export. The parties will immediately launch high-level consultations to share analysis and identify appropriate solutions."

In the end, Paris made the Aachen agreement contingent upon the last-minute secret amendment. The French threats were so flagrant -- and the pressure from their ultimatums so massive -- that some negotiators for the German government seriously feared toward the end of the year that the entire agreement could crumble because of the dispute over arms exports.

On a Thursday shortly before Christmas -- it was Dec. 13 -- state secretaries from France and Germany met once again in Berlin. After weeks of brooding, Berlin presented a four-point accord that it intended to sign with Paris as a sidebar to the grand wording of the new Élysée Treaty.

The government officials gave this clandestine pact the somewhat unwieldy name of "France-Germany industrial cooperation in the defense field - Common understanding of principles applicable to transfers and exports."

In early January, the Chancellery sent the secret agreement to Paris, which then accepted the new terms. This was a huge breakthrough for the negotiators because they had essentially saved the Élysée Treaty. A little over a week later, Merkel and Macron were able to smile away all disagreements on arms exports. The contract they signed contained not a single word about the dispute. "For joint projects, both states will develop a common approach for arms exports," the agreement reads.

Unresolved Issues

Closer Franco-German collaboration offers an opportunity to make Europe more sovereign, says State Minister Roth, "but to achieve this, we Germans will also have to make compromises. A united Europe can't mean that every national decision is automatically implemented verbatim." This is also a message directed to his fellow members of the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD).

SPD supporters of a restrictive arms export policy point out that, in the preamble to the accord, France assures the Germans it will recognize "that Germany conducts its national export control on the basis of its national legislation and the Policy Principles of the Government of the Federal Republic of Germany for the Export of War Weapons and Other Military Equipment of January 19, 2000." Furthermore, members of the left-wing of the SPD have pinned their hopes on a newly created Franco-German council, a "permanent body" in which representatives of both governments are to consult on fundamental export issues.

Paris and Berlin have big plans. Over the coming decades, they intend to develop a new fighter jet and a next-generation tank. When referring to these projects, military representatives speak almost reverently of the "system of all systems."

But the amount of freedom that France will enjoy for the subsequent worldwide marketing of this military hardware remains a contentious issue. After the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Merkel imposed a ban on exports to the oil-rich kingdom, which also had an impact on French arms deals. In addition, the Germans proposed a European arms export directive. Macron was incensed and rejected the idea out of hand. He saw it as an attempt to dictate the policies of his country and emphatically refused to tolerate any criticism of his course.

The secret Franco-German agreement will do little to resolve the conflict between the two countries on the issue of arms exports, however. The language is simply too vague and ambiguous. This is particularly reflected in the passage concerning arms deals in which a German company supplies a French firm with a component, and the final product is slated to be shipped to a controversial third country. In situations like these, Germany and France respect the de minimis principle: As long as the value of the component remains "below a percentage," neither Germany nor France can prevent it from being supplied. This percentage must be "jointly determined beforehand" -- but that hasn't happened yet.

Weak Leaders

Germany and France are marching here in diverging security policy directions, despite all their declarations that they intend to work more closely together. Whereas the Germans want to facilitate joint European military operations over the medium-term, Macron is engaging in short-term thinking. He's aiming for permanent military readiness, even outside the mandate of NATO and the EU. Merkel, on the other hand, prefers to pursue diplomatic channels.

When it comes to military operations abroad, Germany continues to stand apart from other nations because the Bundestag has to approve every mission. Consequently, its allies often no longer bother asking Berlin. When the U.S., France and Britain decided to launch air strikes against the Assad regime in the wake of the chemical attack on the Syrian city of Douma in April last year, they didn't even think of inviting the Germans to take part in the mission.

The treaty signed in Aachen, along with its secret agreement, could soon turn out to be merely a temporary truce. The smoldering crisis of the two partners also has to do with the weaknesses of their heads of state: Merkel is winding down her last term in office and her successor, CDU Chairwoman Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, has been positioning herself on the international stage for quite some time now. Macron has been forced to contend with the street demonstrations of the yellow vest protesters, who are attacking his reform plans. This also prompted him to cancel his appearance at the Munich Security Conference.

Daniel Cohn-Bendit ranks among the most knowledgeable experts on Franco-German relations. He interprets the Nord Stream 2 pipeline crisis as a warning shot by the French, essentially telling the Germans to "watch out, that's not how things work." Cohn-Bendit sees it as a clear signal from Paris to Berlin: "You need us, too!" In other words, things won't always work out according to your expectations.

Cohn-Bendit also accuses the German government of lethargy. The former member of the European Parliament, who is also advising Macron on the upcoming European parliamentary elections, says the Germans lack vision and would prefer to leave everything as it is. At any rate, that's his view of the prevailing Merkel doctrine, particularly in the area of security policy.

Macron revealed the extent of his frustration at the German government's procrastination, dithering and running out the clock on important issues during a trip to Egypt in late January. In response to a question from a journalist, he blurted out an exasperated statement directed at Berlin: "I know your position by heart, and I find it outdated."

By Matthias Gebauer, Julia Amalia Heyer, Christiane Hoffmann, Peter Müller, Dietmar Pieper, Christoph Schult and Gerald Traufetter

Translated from the German by Paul Cohen

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