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

Can the EU overcome the differences in style and substance between its two key members — France and Germany?

May 28, 2013

EU Parliament. (Credit: Botond Horvath -

Political union in Europe would, indeed, be no small undertaking. It’s true that EU member countries are all parliamentary democracies. But “political power” has different meanings in the different countries.

We Europeans tend to project onto Europe the experience of our own national systems.

In other words, we instinctively believe that politics in Europe should work like politics at home. That is a very wrong assumption.

Nowhere is the difference in style and in substance bigger than between France and Germany.

Despite the republican rhetoric, in France politics still turn around the “power of the Prince.”

It is he who must enjoy democratic legitimacy. In no other western country is the executive stronger and the parliament weaker than in France.

Indeed, for French culture, the whole point of having a government is to expect it to shape events, to “make history.” Supported by the “will of the Nation,” its discretionary powers are considerable.

The reverse is true in Germany. Nowhere else is the central government weaker and the parliament stronger. Even the power of the Bundestag, which seems increasingly almighty even in a pan-European context, is constrained.

While France is still highly centralized, Germany’s federal system gives lots of power to the states — that is, the regions around the country, away from the center.

The other true power player in Germany is the nation’s constitution, whose guardian, the Bundesverfassungsgericht (supreme constitutional court) is possibly the most respected institution of the country.

The French Conseil Constitutionnel has acquired importance in recent years, but its authority cannot be compared with that of its German equivalent.

Whenever a newly elected French president meets the German chancellor for the first time, his aides warn him that he is going to see a person who wields less domestic power than he does.

The French expect from their politicians fast and decisive action.

In contrast, the Germans have an understandably difficult relationship with the notion of “making history” and are deeply suspicious of any form of discretionary power.

As a result, Germans believe that markets must be regulated. But they have as little appetite for French “dirigisme” as they have for Anglo-Saxon “laissez-faire.”

They expect politicians to establish rules and to enforce them consistently with as little derogation as possible.

Furthermore, rules must be sustainable because even the best can only be trusted (in particular by the markets) if they are implemented consistently over a long period of time.

This is not to say that the French don’t like rules. On the contrary, they like them so much that they try to change them all the time. And when a new one is adopted it is immediately challenged, often in the streets.

In other words, the core German policy concept of “Ordnungspolitik” is not only an economic recipe. It encompasses an entire political culture favoring a highly regulated market where politicians, having established rules, then refrain from further intervention.

The French system embraces the idea of acting fast and decisively. The German one is focused on building consensus and is slow and cumbersome, sometimes painfully so.

If we judge these different styles on the basis of the capacity to implement reforms, then the advantage is clearly on Berlin’s side.

In fact, the French envy the Germans for this, but seem incapable of changing their political culture.

This stability reflects the preference of the electorate; while parliamentary majorities tend to change in France at every election, governments last much longer in Germany.

All this has important effects for the European policies of the two countries, irrespective of the political color of the government of the day.

The Germans expect the EU to establish rules. The French expect the EU to decide “policies.” The French accept that there should be rules, but say that they should be “flexible.”

It seems reasonable; but who applies “flexibility”? Translated into a German mindset, the concept sounds dangerously like discretion.

When it comes to institutions, they both are suspicious of the Commission.

However, that suspicion is based on different reasons: defense of national sovereignty for the French and fear of discretionary power for the Germans.

The favorite supranational institution in Paris is the European Council. For Berlin, it is the European Parliament.

When the moment comes to give substance to the concept of “political union,” the gap to fill will therefore be huge.

Should the French ever overcome their obsession with sovereignty and accept moving towards some sort of federal system, they will want to compensate at the European level for the loss of discretionary power incurred at the national level.

As a consequence, they will be naturally driven to ask for a strong executive, possibly directly elected. It should not be surprising that the only concrete proposal coming from Hollande is that of a (still undefined) “permanent government” of the eurozone.

The Germans are likely to fight for a constitution with clearly defined rules, a weak executive and a powerful parliament.

To find a workable compromise will be a hard job. But those who think that it would be “mission impossible” should not despair too early.

They can be reassured that “political union” — whatever its ultimate shape (and if it comes to pass) — will certainly not be designed in one big shot.

If we in Europe will ever have our “Philadelphia moment,” its purpose will be to consolidate an already existing balance. Its elements will gradually develop from the process of trial and error that has characterized the eurozone for the last three years.

Some people say that political union is made impossible by the absence of a European “polity.”

The debate on whether it is the polity who generates institutions or vice versa is of course as old as democracy.

It can be easily dismissed only by those who believe that nations as we know them are metaphysical entities that predate the existence of the institutions that govern the people of those nations.

In reality a “polity” is a product of history. It is generated by shared interests and values, but also by a political debate that can only take place around existing institutions.

In Europe, the only place for such debate is the European Parliament. At present, that debate is still more “national” than “European.” On many key issues German socialists are closer to their conservative citizens than to their French comrades.

These differences will never completely disappear. However, as the power of the Parliament continues to increase and as more decisions have to be made in common, compromises be reached not only by governments but also by directly elected politicians.

And so a European polity may well emerge from that process and debate.

Fortunately, the French and the Germans will not determine the result alone. In order to bridge the cultural gap, the design of a European political architecture will require courage and vision.

It will also require a great deal of Italian or Belgian style pragmatism — and propensity to fudge. After all, it could be argued that plenty of fudging is also what happened in Philadelphia more than two centuries ago.

It even led to a civil war and is possibly the cause of the present dysfunctional American system. But that hasn’t prevented the United States from having a glorious history and becoming the dominant power in the world.

Editor’s note: This is second part of a two-part analysis. The first part can be read here.


Nowhere is the difference in style and in substance bigger than between France and Germany.

The Germans expect the EU to establish rules. The French expect it to decide "policies."

The French system embraces acting fast and decisively. The German one aims to build consensus.

France's favorite EU institution is the European Council. For Berlin, it is the European Parliament.

Political union if and when it happens will certainly not be designed in one big shot.