The likely departure of the United Kingdom from the European Union will be a formative moment for the European integration project. Across the EU, governments have asked themselves what the United Kingdom’s departure will mean for their own interests and partnerships, and many have started to explore new coalitions to compensate for the loss of the British. Critically, France and Germany have, yet again, come to the fore as the EU’s most pivotal bilateral relationship.
The June 2016 Brexit referendum took place in the aftermath of nearly a decade of fundamental crises that impacted Europe. Between the global banking crisis, the resulting financial turmoil and its impact on European economies, and the recent arrival of unprecedented numbers of migrants, the EU’s cohesion was strained. In the days following the referendum, there was a strong sense in key European capitals that the prospect of one of the largest and most influential EU members departing was a watershed moment for the EU. After all, it marked the first time in the organization’s history that a member state had decided to leave. Remaining member states feared that this sign of fragmentation would resonate well beyond Europe. And yet, three years later, the EU has held on. It has perhaps even flourished, in no small part due to efforts of policymakers in Berlin and Paris to combat EU-wide centrifugal forces. The remaining twenty-seven EU member states (EU27) have continued to show a remarkable degree of unity during the recent rounds of Brexit negotiations with London.
However, this is no license to become less vigilant. Brexit will have major consequences for the United Kingdom and the EU27 in economic and political terms, the full extent of which will only be known in time. The upcoming European Parliament elections are also likely to reflect fragmentation of the European “body politic,” with fringe parties on the left and right gaining ground across the continent. Additionally, outside political pressure is quickly mounting. Europe’s most important ally, the United States, has wavered in its support of the European integration project. President Donald Trump, in turn, has deepened existing divisions within and between EU member states by, for example, frequently attacking Brussels, picking and choosing individual allies in Europe for his security and defense agenda, or by attempting to undermine European unity on the issue of future relations with Iran.
In spite of this environment of hostility toward European integration and cooperation, France and Germany have both committed to renewed efforts to fortify the EU. There is a dire need for other states to take on this kind of leadership in thinking beyond mere cost-benefit approaches to EU policies and advocating for investments in the wider health and vitality of the EU at-large.
The Franco-German relationship is the strongest bilateral relationship within the EU, and the one with the biggest potential to shape the Union’s fate. These two nations, whose leaders recently cemented their countries’ ties with the Treaty of Aachen in January 2019, continue to have the most mature political relationship in the EU, and both have ample outreach across the continent. The question, though, is whether they will be able to deliver on these promises.
To find out more about the forces that currently drive this pivotal Franco-German partnership, the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) asked French and German experts in government ministries and think tanks for their assessments of the bilateral relationship’s future. As part of a bigger project, the EU Coalition Explorer, covering all twenty-eight EU member states, our questions focused on the degree to which both countries would continue to share interests and cooperate in years to come. Among other conclusions, the survey reaffirmed the importance of the Franco-German relationship, finding that most other EU member states communicate most frequently with these two states and still regard them as having the most influence within the EU. Europeans also generally perceive Paris and Berlin to be the strongest advocates of deeper European integration.
Moreover, the survey reveals much about the two countries’ ability to get states to agree on core EU policies, while also casting light on the limitations of the bilateral relationship. Initially, Paris and Berlin appeared to have a number of shared interests: both French and German respondents, for instance, suggested that the common ground between their countries went far beyond that of other EU member states. However, as the survey delved deeper into the relationship using a set of questions that pressed respondents to explore other dimensions of the level of consensus between Paris and Berlin, more differences between the two countries emerged. On fiscal policy and Eurozone governance – an area on which Franco-German agreement is especially vital if Eurozone reform is to succeed – respondents perceived a great deal of potential for joint Franco-German action in the next two years. Yet, simultaneously, respondents saw this area as one of those most likely to create controversy between the two governments, as well as one in which the current level of agreement between Paris and Berlin was either “medium” or “low.” Despite these obstacles, the survey results demonstrated that each side is highly aware of the other’s position, thereby illustrating the maturity of their bilateral relationship.
In three other core policy areas – 1) migration, refugee, and asylum policy; 2) European defense structures and integration; and 3) EU institutional reform – the picture is less clear. Most respondents, for example, believed there was a “medium” level of consensus between France and Germany on migration, refugee, and asylum policy – issues on which Germans believed there was more consensus than did their French counterparts. Such a finding may illustrate wishful thinking by Germans who, because the refugee crisis has affected them more than the French, are likely to have more confidence in the prospects of a joint approach in this area.
A similar pattern emerged in regard to European defense. An almost equal number of French and German respondents perceived a “medium” level of consensus in this area but distinctly more German respondents perceived a “strong” consensus. Although these findings might, once again, reflect Germans’ desire to more fully integrate European defense considering the new security challenges it faces in and around Europe, the French are perhaps fundamentally more skeptical about Germany’s commitment to such efforts, largely because they doubt that Germany will actually invest in them. Alternatively, French respondents may simply doubt the EU’s capacity to act as a framework for European defense cooperation.
Lastly, the ECFR’s findings suggest that France and Germany will likely find it relatively easy to cooperate on common issues like their digital, climate, and border/coastguard policies. In all such areas, French and German respondents alike believed there would be significant further European cooperation, and little disagreement, in years to come.
Such conclusions depict a rosy picture, but make no mistake: the pressure is on for Paris and Berlin to deliver beyond relatively uncontroversial issues. Doing so – especially with regard to Eurozone reform and European security issues – will be challenging as it requires building a political base for compromise. It would, though, certainly demonstrate their joint energy to take on greater leadership roles within the EU at-large. While the ECFR’s data suggests that France and Germany share great joint responsibility for keeping the EU afloat, this general sense of purpose, alone, will not be enough to guide the post-Brexit EU through the new waves of turbulence it will undoubtedly encounter in the months and years to come. If Berlin and Paris fail to take material steps toward overcoming their mutually well-understood differences, the Franco-German engine risks becoming a shadow of its full potential.
Almut Möller is a senior policy fellow and head of the Berlin office of the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR).