EU En Marche

Paris is Ready to Reboot, But Is Berlin?

“Sterntaler”
Feeling buoyant. Or sea sick? Picture source: Mart Klein & Miriam Migliazzi

There is an atmosphere of revolution in France. Its provenance is the unlikely election victory of Emmanuel Macron, a political neophyte who managed to win over French voters with a platform of open borders and economic reforms, thus bringing the far-right extremists to their knees.

At 39, Mr. Macron could be seen as having plenty of time to push through his ambitious agenda. Time, however, is one thing the new French president does not have thanks to his predecessors, who wasted so much of it.

In a speech at Berlin’s Humboldt University last year, Mr. Macron made clear that he believed Germany and France bore the brunt of the responsibility for Europe’s current political stasis. As soon as you talk to a German about financial transfers, the conversation is over, he said. The same problem applies, he added, when speaking to a Frenchman about EU contracts.

Mr. Macron said he meant to change what he called a “crazy choreography,” adding that both sides needed to stop being so intransigent and focus more on solutions than red lines.

Do German politicians even recognize this historic opportunity to forge a new, stronger Franco-German axis?

One truth that has survived the six decades since the signing of the Treaty of Rome in 1957, which established the European Economic Community, is that Europe only progresses when there’s agreement between the French president and the German chancellor.

This has to do with the size and economic clout of both states, as well as their governments’ unwavering, pro-European attitude. But it’s also due to each government’s unique understanding of how states and markets should coexist. Historically, it was these differing viewpoints – and the compromises these differences necessitated – that made decisions between France and Germany palatable for other European countries.

With Mr. Macron and Ms. Merkel at the helms of their respective countries, this may be France and Germany’s last chance to reinvigorate their relationship and prevent the EU from collapsing. The question is whether Berlin shares Paris’s sense of urgency and willingness to change. Do German politicians even recognize this historic opportunity to forge a new, stronger Franco-German axis?

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Since the Brexit referendum and the election of Donald Trump, Germany has understood that it doesn’t have any partners that it can unquestionably depend upon, except for France. That’s what Ms. Merkel meant recently, when she said Europeans can’t rely on other but have to take their fate into their own hands.

On Sunday, polls suggest, Mr. Macron’s movement will handily secure a majority in the French parliament, the National Assembly. It would be the first time in recent history that a new party has accomplished such a feat.

“We need Europe,” Mr. Macron said in his inaugural speech. “It will be reformed and relaunched because it protects us and allows us to project our values in the world.”

During his election campaign, Mr. Macron made his priorities abundantly clear. He wants to see a more efficient euro zone, one that contributes to the economic convergence of its members, as well as a Europe that offers diplomatic, military and social protection. And he wants the EU to be less naive about its economic relations with other countries. Free trade is necessary, but entire markets should not be disrupted by cheap imports from China, for instance.

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Mr. Macron is preparing France for a reboot. Now, political observers in Europe are wondering whether he, working with Ms. Merkel, can also prime Europe for a fresh start, something the union desperately needs. Things are looking good so far. There seems to be much more common ground between Mr. Macron and Ms. Merkel than there was with his predecessor, François Hollande. As is customary with new French presidents, Mr. Macron’s first trip abroad was to Berlin.

Even though France’s Republican Party is closer to Ms. Merkel’s conservative Christian Democrats, the chancellor has not concealed her hope that Mr. Macron’s movement will win an absolute majority in the second round of parliamentary elections on Sunday. She knows that such a majority is the only way Mr. Macron will have the political capital to implement long overdue reforms.

When Ms. Merkel contemplates how Germany can help Mr. Macron push through his reforms in France, it’s not an entirely selfless gesture. Only when France is strong can it work with Germany to create an EU that can defend itself, pursue its own climate policy, and stop being dependent on the whims of the US.

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Berlin and Paris have already begun laying the foundations for a more amicable relationship, with both leaders and their senior ministers making conciliatory statements on matters that previously proved contentious. Endless bilateral, bureaucratic cooperation between the former archenemies has always ensured that any enmity is promptly dealt with. But quarrels, however slight, are inevitable, and they always have the effect of slowing common efforts to form more functional EU.

Mr. Macron said that he never called for Eurobonds – these would spread sovereign debt across all euro zone nations – and it is an idea that has been consistently dismissed by the German government. In return, the Germans have cautiously started to walk back from calls for austerity in euro member states with high debt burdens.

In addition, Ms. Merkel and Mr. Macron have already tasked their defense and finance ministers to hash out a Franco-German initiative for the planned European Defense Fund.

Yet for all this progress in the Franco-German alliance, there are still officials in the German government who say that Paris must do its economic homework. There’s nothing wrong with saying France needs to help itself first, before it can help others. But these Germans may also be a bit envious of the pro-European mood that Mr. Macron has inspired in his fellow countrymen. Whereas other candidates concentrated on France’s sovereignty while waving their blue, white and red flags, Mr. Macron spoke of European sovereignty flanked by the blue European flag emblazoned with its 12 gold stars.

What separated Mr. Macron from his contenders was not merely a different understanding of how France should be administered, but a fundamentally different understanding of the French state. The way Mr. Macron sees it, the sovereignty of European nations is something that can only be guaranteed if they work together.

Distrust and misunderstandings, followed by periods of great amiability, have become constants in the post-war, Franco-German relationship. Some of the misunderstandings have, at times, even taken an unexpectedly happy turn.

That’s how it was in September 1958, when the then German chancellor, Konrad Adenauer, was invited by French general, Charles de Gaulle, to his country home. Mr. de Gaulle’s wife, Yvonne, was not happy about the upcoming visit and told her staff: “He will be received like any other visitor. We will use the regular dishware and put normal Bordeaux on the table.”

Rather than take the meal as an affront, Mr. Adenauer thought it to be extremely cordial. Afterwards, he enthusiastically told his own staff that the de Gaulles treated him like an old friend and that the general’s wife even used their family dishware.

But not all misunderstandings have been received so harmoniously. From Francois Mitterrand’s surprise visit to East Germany in December 1989, to the unexpected turnaround in the Merkel administration’s refugee policy in the summer of 2015, certain decisions have caused indignation in one country or another. At times, each country even suspected the other of malice.

For Mr. de Gaulle, the historian Serge Berstein has written, Europe was a way for France to achieve the greatness it could no longer achieve on its own. It was never supposed to be about establishing a supra-national union, and at the time many French people agreed with him.

The election of Mr. Macron shows just how much has changed. In 2016, French politician Sylvie Goulard, who has since been appointed France’s minister of defense, said that Europeans need to unite now, more than ever, if they want to be taken seriously on the world stage. Ms. Goulard quoted the former CEO of Commerzbank, Martin Blessing, saying that if Europe failed to unite, “China will take us Germans about as seriously as we take Bosnia-Herzegovina.”

Of course, extending that logic, it would also mean France would be taken as seriously as Montenegro, Bosnia’s neighbor. And does anybody remember Montenegro? The smaller nation last made major headlines when US President Donald Trump rudely pushed its prime minister aside at the G20 summit as he jostled to get to the front row for a group photo.

Thomas Sigmund is Berlin bureau chief and heads Handelsblatt’s political coverage and Thomas Hanke is the newspaper’s correspondent in Paris. To contact the authors: sigmund@handelsblatt.com, hanke@handelsblatt.com

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