Marianne and Brunhilde: Reflections on France and Germany in Europe (Part I)

Are France and Germany so vital to the EU precisely because they disagree on virtually everything?

May 27, 2013

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François Hollande’s call for the eurozone to move towards political union has been described as a “turning point” in French policy. Or is it? In fact, it is a belated response to similar calls made in the past by Angela Merkel.

Both have left the concept largely undefined.

The reason France and Germany are so important — and vital — in the EU is to a large extent due to their propensity to disagree on virtually everything.

The alternative pursuits of “Colbertism” and of a “social market economy” are generalizations and can lead to stereotypes.

But they are not without substance.

The two countries’ economic philosophies are so far apart that when they can agree on something — or increasingly anything at all — everybody else in Europe often finds the compromise acceptable.

(The United Kingdom is a special case, not relevant for this analysis).

With the signing of the Maastricht treaty, the Germans could reasonably assume that they had won the intellectual debate over economic strategy and practice in Europe once and for all.

The eurozone crisis has decided otherwise.

The rift has reappeared and is widening. Seen from Berlin, France (like other southern countries) is paying for her failure to implement the painful structural reforms that have transformed Germany from the sick man of Europe into the continent’s powerhouse.

Meanwhile, terms that sound downright horrific to German ears, such as “industrial policy” and “a new mandate for the ECB,” are reappearing in Paris.

Seen from Paris, Germany is the prisoner of a selfish orthodoxy that prevents her from accepting that new problems require new solutions.

That is a narrative that is broadly shared by other eurozone members, leaving the Germans to feel isolated.

However, from the painful piecemeal solutions that have accompanied the European response during the last three years, a consensus seems to emerge that what is needed is “more Europe.”

This implies that the euro (and indeed the entire European project) can only be saved if the move towards “political union” is made.

This is a debate that France and Germany have carefully tried to avoid ever since the days when De Gaulle launched his war against Europe’s supranational institutions. Are they really ready for it now?

The conventional wisdom tells us that the Germans are instinctive European federalists, ready to replicate on a continental scale what they have at home.

The French, on the other hand — as we saw on the occasion of the referendum on the European “constitution” in May 2005 — continue to cherish unimpeded national sovereignty.

Here again, stereotypes can be misleading. France has moved a long way from Gaullist dogma, while the Germans have become more reluctant to share sovereignty (and money).

However, important differences remain. Merkel and Sarkozy seemed to agree that the solution should be found on a purely intergovernmental basis.

All the power had to be placed in the European Council, with the implication that the two countries would effectively run the show.

This plan has not worked. The French have realized that, given the power shift in favor of Germany, joint dominance is an illusion — which explains Hollande’s move.

The Germans, for their part, are understandably uncomfortable with a situation where everybody else calls on them to exercise “leadership,” but resents what could look like a “German Europe.”

That is why many Germans would prefer a system where the ultimate decision-making responsibility would be based on common, well-legitimized institutions.

Advocates of this institutional model in Germany are expected to favor this approach because they believe that these institutions would essentially continue to sing to a German tune.

They may be surprised. “Common” institutions can develop an operating logic that can easily make them very different from that of an intergovernmental system.

The ECB is a case in point. It was designed with the Bundesbank as its institutional and cultural template.

But driven by necessity, Mario Draghi has interpreted his mandate in a rather flexible way. He has done so with a wise political nod from Berlin, but to the horror of many in the German establishment.

More nods and more horror are likely to come in the near future.

However we define it, political union is not a small thing. It is also very possible that Europeans will miss the target.

Nevertheless, there is also the possibility that many EU nations (though not all) will be driven by necessity in that direction. If and when we come to that point, we will discover that the problem of sovereignty is only the tip of the iceberg.

Editor’s Note: This is part one of a two part analysis. The second part can be read here.

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Takeaways

France and Germany are vital to the EU precisely because they disagree on virtually everything.

After Maastricht, Germans assumed they had won the debate over economic strategy in Europe.

From piecemeal solutions in the crisis response, a consensus has emerged for "more Europe."

France has realized that, given the power shift to Germany, joint dominance is an illusion.