EU: Is the Franco-German engine running again?

French President François Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel will make a historic joint appearance in the European Parliament. Would you say that we are witnessing kind of revival of French-German EU engine, or maybe not so much and why? Read few comments.

Carine Germond, Fellow, Netherlands Institute for Advanced Studies, Assistant Professor of Contemporary, Maastricht University

This is a momentous address for both François Hollande and Angela Merkel. With this joint speech in front of the European Parliament, both leaders evidently follow in the footsteps of their political forefathers, François Mitterrand and Helmut Kohl, who then embodied a Franco-German engine that was able to provide leadership in and for Europe. As such the joint appearance in the EP is a clear attempt by Hollande and Merkel to revive a certain idea of a Franco-German leadership in Europe and to style themselves as its heirs.

In fact, the announced Franco-German speech epitomizes the rapprochement that has taken place between the two leaders since the beginning of the refugee crisis. Hollande and Merkel have both argued in favour of a generous immigration and asylum policy for refugees congruent with Europe’s humanist ideals and values; both are also facing – for Merkel including from her own party –  political opposition and a divided public opinion, as the dwindling support of Merkel’s ‘open arms policy’ vis-à-vis Syrian refugees blatantly illustrates. Certainly, this rapprochement was also facilitated by shared interests, although Germany remains the primary receiving country.

The lack of coordinated response from the EU and its members to the refugee crisis has undeniably created room for a Franco-German common initiative. In fact, successful Franco-German tandem (e.g. Valéry Giscard d’Estaing and Helmut Schmidt or François Mitterrand and Helmut Kohl) were historically characterized by their ability to take advantage of opportunities arising from the European and international context, not just to deepen bilateral cooperation but also to take joint initiatives to advance European integration. In the past, a working Franco-German tandem has also been an important, congenial partner to the European Commission to advance European integration. Merkel and Hollande could thus achieve a great deal, for instance, by backing up the ambitious proposals on asylum and immigration that the Commission has put forward.

Until recently, however, division rather than cooperation has characterized relations between Paris and Berlin. Both capitals have had different positions on key international issues (from Libya to Syria), diverging ideas about how to address the Euro and Greek crisis, and they (still) lack a common vision for both Europe and Franco-German relations. All this was further aggravated by the growing economic imbalance between the two countries and the increasingly prominent political role that Germany has been playing in Europe since reunification.

The joint EP of Hollande and Merkel address is a very positive signal, but it is principally a symbolic gesture. It is designed to stage a Franco-German engine that, regrettably or not, no longer exists and to urge Europeans to raise up to the many, moral as well as constitutional, challenges that Europe currently faces. Yet, looking ahead, many of the fundamental problems which have hindered in the recent past Franco-German privileged relations to play their engine role have not been resolved, nor will they be easily resolved in the near future. At the same time, it has also become much more difficult in the present-day EU-28 for France and Germany to be Europe’s locomotive on their own than it was for instance in the EU-9 or the EU-15, nor is such a role to be easily accepted by other EU partners.

By all means, for France and Germany to be able again to give Europe a strategic direction will require more than a few words. Whatever message Hollande and Merkel will convey on Wednesday, substance not merely rhetoric will be in demand.

Robert LadrechProfessor of European Politics, Keele University

There is a proverb in English, ‘necessity is the mother of invention’, and I think in the case of France and Germany, the recent pressing issues of refugees, the Eurozone debt crisis, even the cohesiveness of the EU itself, push these two countries’ leaders to present a joint or common front to the rest of Europe and the world. They are still the only combination of two countries to signal ‘getting serious’ about these issues, especially as the UK can no longer be counted upon to demonstrate solidarity with the rest of the EU, not to mention Hungary and some other countries. So, I think Hollande and Merkel, who disagree on EU economic policy to a degree, still find themselves the only two leaders to share a platform together to demonstrate political will to face the challenges that are building up and erupting around the EU. To answer your question directly, it may be a tentative step in signalling a renewed political leadership, but too early to tell.

Aline Sierp, Associate Professor, Maastricht University

When Angela Merkel and François Hollande will appear together in front of the European Parliament tomorrow afternoon, they will mark a historic moment in the current (refugee) crisis. Angela Merkel last spoke in front of the European Parliament three years ago, on 7. November 2012 – alone. This time she is going to be accompanied by the French president. Judging from press releases published by the German and the French government both Merkel and Hollande are painfully aware of the immense symbolic weight this common gesture carries. It recalls the joint appearance of Helmut Kohl and François Mitterand in front of the European Parliament in November 1989 – the last time that a French and a German leader have offered a joint statement to the plenary – and it takes place in the middle of one of the biggest crises the EU has been facing since its inception. More than the restart of the spluttering French-German EU engine it is a public message of unity, an open demonstration of both leaders’ conviction that the EU continues to be a community of shared values and of solidarity. If joint statements will be followed by joint actions as well is questionable. It is possible that we will witness not much more than a successful instance of symbolic politics. It is nevertheless equally probable that Merkel’s and Hollande’s demonstrative solidarity will have strong percussions on the European level. It might be the necessary symbolic signal the EU needs to start looking for common responses again – an ability it seems to have forgotten in the past months.

Alistair Cole, Professor of Politics, Cardiff University

I think the appearance is one of a closer Franco-German collaboration. Where this is novel is in respect to foregin affairs- especially over Ukraine. And it does represent a moving closer together on some aspects of the relationship. But the past few months have also revealed fairly deep divisions: over Greece and the euro-crisis (Hollande much more inclined to a favorable settlement than Merkel); over the migrant and refugee crisis (Hollande initially opposed to quotas). And Hollande’s proposals in terms of a parliament of the Eurozone and renewed forms of political oversight over the ECB have Fallen on deaf ears…The novelty is in foreign affairs, where the UK appears absent…



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