Since its inception, the European Union has been built on the foundation of the Franco-German axis. The politicians who shaped the political architecture of the EU, namely Jean Monnet and Konrad Adenauer, were equally keen to sketch out a path of Franco-German cooperation. After 500 years of continuous fighting, and despite the uncertainty involved in the fulfillment of their assigned roles, Germany and France have forged an alliance which has been the landmark of European cooperation and whose influence has spread across the continent.
The two countries have been so instrumental to the construction of the European community that their leadership during the current crisis is not only seen as natural but was fully expected and eagerly welcomed by most of their European partners in the past few years. But today, subtle differences are emerging in the attitudes of the two countries towards the EU. They cannot simply be explained by differences in commitment to the European project but signal a difference in visions. The questions before us are: What will the future of the EU look like, and what role will the Franco-German alliance fulfill?
While France appears to embrace the traditional role of a leader among twenty-seven lesser peers, Germany looks for a “revolutionary” Europe which would increasingly bury the concept of state sovereignty in favor of European cooperation and decision-making.
The idea of a European Defense Community (EDC), proposed by a French president and unconditionally supported by Adenauer, were vetoed by the French government itself when Germany‘s full participation became clear. The story illustrates the continued French worry (shared by other nations) that Germany could occupy the leadership role and impress its ideas and models upon the rest of Europe.
But despite its economic dominance, Germany was always careful to show its unwillingness to cover the “lone leader” role. While Mrs. Merkel is always ready to affirm her position on every European issue, she has made it clear that her final objective is the political unification of Europe. According to Merkel, this must be the goal of the Franco-German axis. Despite the crisis, the official German line calls for more integration, not a reduction of the European project.
This statement comes at a time when France is growing more skeptical of the EU. Even Mr. Sarkozy, who is posing as “Europe’s champion”, has adopted the motto “La France forte”, which closely resembles De Gaulle’s nationalistic “Grandeur”, even if the intended meaning is that only a strong France can be an engine to Europe’s future.
The French elections are publicized more and more as “the” European elections in the press. It appears as if everybody is expecting the outcome of the Sarkozy-Hollande battle to be a watershed moment for the future of Europe: a revision of the Schengen agreement, the fiscal compact, and a new role for the European Central Bank all seem to hinge on the mood of French voters. This is good, for it reminds France of the importance that national decisions can have on an international level. But it is also troublesome, for it reinforces the notion that France is the sole occupant of the center seat of European politics – and it makes us forget that many of the projects that are up for discussion were only realized when Realpolitik forced France and Germany to act together.
A new French government, with less foreign policy experience, may bring this misunderstanding to the breaking point, trying to force Germany into taking a role it does not really want to have, or simply failing to understand Germany’s attempts to change the institutional structure of the EU. This would hamper the axis’s ability to be the engine able to pull the Community’s train into economic recovery.