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More Europe in the face of realpolitik’s return? French perspectives on 30 years of German reunification

The current geopolitical situation has disrupted the European and global order, which were both consolidated in the 1990s and have been key factors in the modern German model. The Franco-German duo is currently facing new challenges and it will have to respond appropriately in a time when the EU’s global influence is shrinking in the face of what some analysts call a “new Cold War”.

September 29, 2022 - Marie Krpata - Issue 5 2022MagazinerEUnify

Photo: Charos Pix (CC) ww.flickr.com

On October 3rd, 1990, Germany regained its full sovereignty through reunification. This was a defining moment for Germany, Europe and the entire world. Positioned at the centre of Europe, Germany became a major arena of rivalry during the Cold War and was then in the spotlight of world politics. The reunification marked the transition from a world divided into two blocs to a “new world order” dominated by the United States, which has revealed itself to be increasingly unstable. Moreover, the end of the partition of Germany paved the way for the unification of Europe through the enlargement of the European Union. At the same time, Germany gradually became Europe’s leading economic actor.

For France, Germany’s mounting confidence following its reunification raised concerns about its destabilising potential regarding Europe’s equilibrium. France perceived potential further enlargements and Germany’s growing influence in Europe as factors in its own potential marginalisation. At the same time, the “Franco-German couple”, which had already established itself as the European driving force during the Cold War, could accelerate the pace of European integration after 1990. Nevertheless, with the accession of states from Central and Eastern Europe and the European institutions’ growing competencies, the “Franco-German couple” must constantly readapt and assert itself as a compass for Europe in order to remain relevant.

Even more so, in the face of the challenges of the 21st century, new thinking is required – more in European terms than in national ones. The world’s decoupling, which could be glimpsed against the backdrop of US-China rivalry, seems to be materialising and accelerating with the war in Ukraine – at least to some extent. It poses many challenges for Germany due to the openness of its economic model and energy dependence. The fundamentals on which it bases its foreign policy are also being questioned, and its inhibitions in terms of defence policy are increasingly apparent. Within this context, Germany’s potential evolution towards becoming a relevant geopolitical actor goes hand in hand with the EU’s own shift towards increased global actorness.

The way in which France and the EU will be associated with the transformation of Germany’s model will be decisive for European unity. Three questions are of crucial importance. Firstly, how could Germany assert itself in the world and Europe after its reunification; and what is the French perception of this German repositioning? How does Germany intend to adapt its model to the challenges of the 21st century? And what role will the EU, and in particular France, play during this transformation?

Germany’s regained post-Cold War confidence

Reunification was a turning point (Wende) that allowed Germany to regain self-confidence. It was the first step towards Germany’s “normalisation” into a “nation like any other”. German unity meant that Germany had recovered its full sovereignty “over internal and external affairs” and that it could rebuild constructive relationships with its neighbours. However, the weight of history gave it a responsibility and a duty to remember, which explains its reluctance to commit itself too assertively on the international level.

Nevertheless, it did regain confidence as far as economics are concerned. Germany relies on the competitiveness of its industry, and its open economic model favours the export of its goods. By GDP, Germany has become the fourth largest economy in the world and the biggest one in Europe. Its trade surplus made it the world’s leading exporter for a long time. Globalisation, which gained momentum at the end of the Cold War, enabled it to expand its markets and forge links with newly industrialised countries, particularly China.

Due to historical reasons, Germany’s renewed confidence as a global player was, however, limited to its economic strength and its action as a “civilian power”. Germany defines itself within the EU and United Nations as an advocate of multilateralism and international law. Berlin assumed that its role is best played through negotiation and consultation, not through an assertive foreign policy based on military power.

In terms of defence policy, Germany remains reticent. Interventions in Kosovo, Afghanistan and in the Sahel region, for instance, focused on civilian operations. In contrast, due to its political system and institutional organisation, France differs from Germany in terms of external operations. The French president even has prerogatives independent of parliamentary approval. France and Germany also differ in terms of arms exports. While Paris considers them necessary to strengthen the European defence industrial base and make it competitive, Berlin is committed to better control of these exports by taking into account “questions of ethical responsibility”.

Europe’s centre of gravity shift and its repercussions on France

Franco-German relations are marked by the three bloody wars of 1870-71, 1914-18 and 1939-45. The rivalry between these two powers was later to be a determining factor in the construction of what was to become the European Union. This construction process was an attempt to convert hostile relations into a project of peace and prosperity which is what makes the Franco-German relationship, at the centre of the European Union, a “special relationship”. However, at the time of reunification, German unity raised concerns in France, which feared the return of a Germany eager to dominate Europe. French newspapers such as Le Monde published the headline in 1992: “Should we be afraid of Germany?” During the Franco-German summit in Bonn between November 2nd and 3rd 1989, François Mitterrand replied to that question by saying, “No, I am not afraid of reunification.” In a survey conducted in September 1989, 75 per cent of French people also answered positively to the question “Do you think that the German demand for German reunification is legitimate?”

As the prospect of reunification became more realistic, however, France’s fears of a reunified Germany weakening and marginalising it within a new Europe became increasingly evident. Mitterrand considered it “legitimate” that the Germans felt the “will to reunite”. However, he also invited caution by stating that “the new German equilibrium cannot be achieved to the detriment of the equilibrium of Europe.”

This feeling was confirmed by the moving of the German capital from Bonn to Berlin, which was seen as a sign of the direction Germany’s European policy would take. Keeping the capital in Bonn, and therefore a three-hour drive from Brussels, would have marked the choice – centred around the Franco-German couple – of “maintaining privileged links with the capitals of the Western European states”, whereas establishing the German capital 80 kilometres from Poland meant “anticipating a shift in the continent’s political and economic centre of gravity towards the East”. As Willy Brandt put it: “Germany does not remain the East of the West but becomes the new centre of Europe.”

The accession of Austria to the EU in 1995, followed by the 2004 and 2007 enlargements, which included the countries of Central and Eastern Europe, shifted the continent’s centre of gravity. From a French point of view, this “risk[ed] coinciding with a strong extension of the Germanic zone of influence”.

Rising post-Cold War challenges

Faced with the concerns of France and other European partners about the effects of reunification, Germany agreed to sacrifice the Deutschmark in favour of a common currency, the euro. This went hand in hand with further European integration, which gained momentum in the 1990s through the Treaty of Maastricht (1992) and the Treaty of Amsterdam (1997). However, it was a stony path. The war in Yugoslavia erupted in the EU’s neighbourhood and the Treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe, drawn up with a view to be adopted 15 years after German reunification, ultimately failed. The Constitutional Treaty was replaced by the Lisbon Treaty, abandoning the mention of European symbols (common anthem, flag, motto). External shocks also affected the EU, such as the economic and financial crisis of 2009, the migration crisis of 2015, and, more recently, the COVID-19 pandemic. On top of such uncertainty, various geopolitical challenges can also be added. These include growing Sino-American rivalry, on which the EU must endeavour to take a clearer stance if it does not want to become a collateral victim of the resulting world repolarisation. Of course, the war in Ukraine is also causing tremendous issues for Europe and its future.

Post-Cold War European construction should be seen as the continuation of Germany’s reunification. The current geopolitical situation has disrupted the European and global order, which were both consolidated in the 1990s and have been key factors in the modern German model. The Franco-German couple is currently facing new challenges and it will have to respond appropriately, in an inclusive manner together with other member states, if it wants to proactively defend the EU’s interests at a time when its global influence is shrinking in the face of what some analysts call a “new Cold War”.

The Zeitenwende and Germany’s new inclination towards more assertiveness

Heightened tensions at the international level, which are only increasing with the war in Ukraine, call into question a certain number of policy fundamentals. Energy policy, economic policy but also foreign policy are concerned. This repolarisation of the world represents a challenge of such magnitude that it cannot only be tackled at the national level but must also be assessed on a European scale. The geopolitical context and reorientation announced by Olaf Scholz on February 27th 2022 in a speech before the Bundestag are likely to change Franco-German and European priorities. Scholz’s speech articulated Germany’s intention to bolster its assertiveness in military, energy and economic matters, as well as in terms of its foreign policy to respond to these issues. By announcing a new Wende, the Zeitenwende (turning point), he intended to prepare the Germans for a new rupture of a magnitude comparable to reunification.

The war in Ukraine has shown that Germany’s reliance on foreign trade and investment, as well as its belief that it could democratise authoritarian countries through economic interdependence, have been naïve. The internationalisation of its value chains is becoming Germany’s Achilles’ heel. This is particularly noticeable on the energy front, where dependence on Russian gas reached 55 per cent in 2021 (however, since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, Germany was able to reduce this dependency to 35 per cent). Germany’s previous claim that Nord Stream 2 was merely an “economic” and “energy” project, as well as its hesitation to include this gas pipeline in the package of sanctions against Russia, testify to Germany’s inability to assert itself at the diplomatic level. Its timorous positioning in foreign policy so far has prompted authoritarian regimes to strengthen their assertive stance.

As for France, the energy crisis in the 1970s saw the country mainly shift its energy strategy towards nuclear energy. It also buys its uranium from multiple suppliers. Therefore, France is not currently confronted with the same energy challenge as Germany. The French model may however not be easily copied in Germany. The debates on EU taxonomy over the end of the year 2021 illustrate the Franco-German divide in this respect. Indeed, nuclear energy is unpopular among the German population and Berlin even decided to phase it out in 2011 after the Fukushima catastrophe. The last German nuclear power plants were set to close in 2022. However, the German government recently announced that it would extend the runtime of two nuclear plants as emergency reserves due to energy challenges caused by the war in Ukraine.

Germany will hence have to look for alternatives with a view to decoupling energy from Russia, which is also an ambition from a European perspective with regard to the REPowerEU plan. From a French perspective, the challenges faced by Germany confirm its call for European “strategic autonomy” – although Germany prefers the terms “strategic sovereignty” or “European sovereignty”. This concept may notably be translated into reducing the EU’s vulnerabilities resulting from dependencies.

Rethinking relations with Eastern Europe and the Balkans

As a result of the war in Ukraine, the question of a new European security architecture is arising. The war marks the violation of the principles and spirit of the Charter of Paris for a New Europe, established in 1990. This consolidated Europe’s post-Cold War security architecture by condemning the “[…] threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any State […]”. France and Germany, which have tried to find a political solution to the conflict between Ukraine and Russia since the annexation of Crimea and the war in Donbas, are increasingly being criticised for what has been deemed as hesitant support for Ukraine. They now must regain credibility in the eyes of some of their European (and American) partners in order to participate effectively in the new European security architecture.

In addition to the question of Europe’s security architecture, it is the EU’s enlargement, and relations with its neighbours, that are essential. While the countries of the Western Balkans aspire to EU membership and regret the lack of prospects, three Eastern partners of the EU (Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine) have declared their intentions to become members since Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. Moldova and Ukraine were granted candidate status at the European Council meeting on June 23rd and 24th 2022, while further reforms will be necessary for Georgia. The current difficulty lies in the need to enthusiastically welcome the new applications while remaining clear on the reforms necessary before membership can become effective. At the same time, the EU cannot afford to frustrate “long-time applicants” with this differential treatment that may favour those new applicants over former ones.

Knowing the road to accession may be bumpy for the new applicants, France and Germany hesitated before supporting their accession claims. Beyond that, what is at stake in the long run are security guarantees for Ukraine, provided Kyiv asks the EU to act as a guarantor of its security and territorial integrity in possible future negotiations with Russia. In the assumption of such agreements being envisaged by Ukraine to end the war (on the condition of assurances regarding its sovereignty and territorial integrity), the EU must be a credible and respected actor capable of enforcing such provisions. This will greatly depend on France and Germany because of their specific role within the EU.

European priorities on the Franco-German agenda

The Franco-German relationship has been institutionalised in the Elysée Treaty (1963) and the Treaty of Aachen (2019), which provide for a rapprochement of civil societies, institutions, and players in cross-border co-operation. Beyond that, Germany and France aspire to be the “engine of European construction”. However, the Franco-German couple is also marked by divergences in the European project that various crises, which multiplied from 2009, make increasingly apparent.

This was particularly obvious during the economic and financial crisis of 2008-09, when Germany embodied political leadership while France played a rather secondary role. Overall, the divide between the “frugal countries”, on the one hand, and the EU’s most heavily indebted countries, which had drastic austerity plans imposed on them, on the other, persists to this day. Certainly, the management of the COVID-19 pandemic has caused a shift, with the suspension of the Stability and Growth Pact and the elaboration of the Next Generation EU Plan, in which the member states committed to common debt. These measures exemplify Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel’s leadership capacities and powers of persuasion. But when returning to “business as usual”, debates on the Stability Pact will resume, where some – including Germany – will advocate for balanced finances, while others – including France – would rather like to reform the Pact and adapt it to the modernisation needs of the EU. This is especially true in terms of the digital and energy transitions, as well as associated investment needs.

Another bone of contention between France and Germany is defence policy, with Germany still holding a timorous and traditionally pro-American position and France wishing to bolster European strategic autonomy, including in relation to the United States. The war in Ukraine has painfully shown the EU’s underestimation of security threats and the unpreparedness of the German armed forces, which are far from alone in this case. The EU’s “Strategic Compass” aims to respond to the shortcomings of European defence. However, the war in Ukraine reinforces the role of the US as a defender of security in Europe. Therefore, the EU faces a fundamental question on the place of European defence in the NATO Alliance. Similarly, how will the colossal investments mentioned by Chancellor Olaf Scholz on February 27th 2022 to strengthen the German defence be used exactly? Will they be compatible with defence initiatives on a European scale and employable for cooperation with France in particular, for instance in common arms projects?

EU institutions are part of the equation

Certainly, the Franco-German duo has often given momentum to the EU’s political action, which undoubtedly requires political will and the assumption of leadership. If under this leadership the EU has shown itself able to quickly adapt over recent years to unforeseen events, notably during the COVID-19 pandemic, there are still calls to sustainably carry out structural institutional reform. The EU’s adaptability was exemplified by its suspension of applicable rules in state aid, the protection of its critical assets against unfriendly takeovers from third countries, the creation of the Next Generation EU Fund, and the temporary suspension of the Stability and Growth Pact.

The current decision-making process seeks to embody the spirit of compromise, aiming to avoid the domination of one or two member states over the others. The constant strive of EU institutions towards consensus is a strength on the one hand, but it is also a weakness on the other, as it is synonymous of lack of flexibility, responsiveness and efficiency. This is especially true in the face of issues that sometimes require immediate decisions and action. In domains where unanimity is required, this weakness is particularly felt. In order to circumvent possible deadlocks and render the EU as efficient as the dynamics of international relations require, the question of replacing unanimous voting with qualified majority voting arises.

The possibility of a further EU enlargement makes this issue all the more relevant to avoid stalemates. Voting could eventually require unanimity among what may be over 35 member states (in the maximum scenario). A reform to introduce qualified majority voting would however need to be adopted with unanimity, which again renders the prospect of it succeeding under the current circumstances improbable.

The reunification of Germany may have aroused fears of political marginalisation in France. German reunification was synonymous with Europe’s unification as it hastened enlargement towards Central and Eastern Europe, which was seen as possibly resulting in a reduced weight of France in Europe.. Benefiting from a unique 30 years of lasting post-Cold War momentum that was particularly conducive to multiplying relationships with international partners, Germany has managed to rise to the position of Europe’s leading economic actor. Although it has often been criticised for its budgetary orthodoxy, Germany was regarded as a model to follow by some. In light of the war in Ukraine, the cracks in the German model have however become evident and were articulated by Olaf Scholz in his speech on February 27th. Nevertheless, there is also reason for hope in this otherwise quite sobering context. Germany and the 26 other EU member states responded to crises such as COVID-19 and the war in Ukraine with the adoption of the Next Generation EU and REPowerEU plans – both strongly supported by both France and Germany. These prove their resilience and capacity to adapt.

The EU’s modernisation agenda and the plan to strengthen the EU’s technological and industrial leadership as part of the twin green and digital transitions – which might actually be accelerated by the need to decouple from Russian hydrocarbons – could be a first step in achieving increased EU assertiveness in fields like economy and energy. Moreover, on defence, awareness regarding the unpreparedness of European military forces in relation to a conventional war, pushed NATO and the EU to strengthen their co-operation. As a consequence, Germany also made major announcements which – if met with concrete implementation – may assert its position in international relations.

For Europe to emerge stronger from the war in Ukraine, it is necessary to adopt a truly inclusive attitude towards all the member states, including the countries of Central and Eastern Europe and the Baltic states. This must take into account their history and political specificities. Likewise, a clear policy on enlargement, particularly with regard to the Western Balkans, which has been lacking in the past, but which was brought back to the fore with the war in Ukraine, is particularly crucial. Developing a Franco-German agenda around these priorities is all the more important for France as its credibility in these various areas is being increasingly questioned.

Marie Krpata is a research fellow and member of the Study Committee on Franco-German Relations (Cerfa) at the French Institute of International Relations (IFRI).

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