With their joint proposal for the corona crisis, Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron are withdrawing the French-German engine. But how much gasoline is in the tank?
No European integration without a French-German engine. If the two Member States are on the same line, much is possible. If they do not agree, the European project will stand still. European integration of the past 70 years came as good as always after France and Germany – sometimes with the necessary massage from Belgium – made a compromise. Despite the enlargement of the Union, the two are still vital today. To illustrate: France and Germany already need half of the Member States representing over 30% of the European population to approve a qualified majority proposal in the Council of Ministers. Nevertheless, the Franco-German axis has sputtered in recent years. However, after the election of French President Emmanuel Macron, the signs were hopeful. Spurred by Brexit, the instability at Europe’s external borders and the incalculable US President Donald Trump, Merkel and Macron both declared in a few months that Europe had to take its fate into its own hands. In 2018 – ten years after Angela Merkel – Macron received the International Charles Prize in Aachen for his efforts for European integration. Two months later, he made a bilateral commitment to reform the Eurozone with Merkel at Meseberg Castle. Finally, in 2019, France and Germany renewed the friendship treaty with additional ambitions for the European project.Prince of Europe There was a lot of flirtation, but it never came to a wedding. First and foremost, both Macron and Merkel had to contend with considerable domestic difficulties for a while, which required the bulk of attention. After some defeats in the national and state elections, the German Chancellor was forced to relinquish her party presidency in 2018 under internal pressure. And that while her social democratic coalition partner struggled with an identity crisis. Macron, in turn, had a lot of work to do with the yellow vests and the internal reforms that are hard to sell to this day. His popularity domestically fluctuates around a meager 40 percent, driven by the corona crisis, the best score in two years. But there was more to it. Professor of European history Mathieu Segers (Maastricht University) thinks Macron Merkels misinterpreted signals. As soon as Macron was elected, Merkel has consistently indicated that she wants to help him. But for the German Chancellor there must be domestic reforms in return. And he finds it difficult to achieve that in his own country. To reform the Union, Macron must realize that he is primarily the French President and not the Prince of Europe. In France he has to prove that he is serious, ”says Segers. “Macron has more than once criticized Merkel’s lack of decisiveness in recent years,” says Sophie Pornschlegel, senior European political researcher at the European Policy Center in Brussels, specializing in French-German relations. “But with moments his expectations were also unrealistically high.” In addition, there is sometimes mistrust of the true motives of European integration and the style in which it is packaged. French politicians almost openly admit that they are also using the European project to take French grandeur on the international stage to the next level. Germany, on the other hand, is obligated because of its history and has a more pragmatic attitude, ‘says Pornschlegel. But – as history shows – those different styles and interests are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Suddenly, when they are coordinated, a great deal is possible. “Deauville And so it happened. In recent months, another entente has arisen between Paris and Berlin. The Conference on the Future of Europe, adapted to the preferences of both Member States, is one of them. The initiative will normally start during the German Presidency of the Council of the European Union in the second half of 2020 and will end after France’s turn in 2022. In other words, Germany can define the framework, France can pin any positive results on its hat. Everyone happy. The corona virus has accelerated the entente between Paris and Berlin. In the run-up to the German Presidency, Angela Merkel noted less than a month ago that her country is ready to take significant steps forward. Including additional financing for the European level such as a financial transaction tax and CO2 taxes on aviation and shipping. “The signals that Merkel has given in recent weeks all indicate that she is willing to take unorthodox steps,” says Segers. That move was perfected Monday evening. The only question is whether they can capitalize on the momentum. That sometimes went wrong in the past. Ten years ago, during the financial-economic crisis, Merkel and Macron’s predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy in the French seaside town of Deauville concluded that the public debts of some euro countries were no longer sustainable. To everyone’s surprise, the two proposed that some of the debts of euro area countries in difficulty be shifted to private shoulders and the rules of the Stability and Growth Pact be relaxed. The proposal was criticized by them and the financial markets reacted with concern. Although it was nevertheless adopted by all other Member States in the Council of the European Union, it was subsequently weakened and ultimately reduced to zero. The commitments after the Meseberg summit in 2018 were also virtually all dead letters. GarageMerkel and Macron know only too well that they should avoid a reissue of Deauville and Meseberg. In contrast to ten years ago, there was extensive consultation with all other Member States in the run-up to the proposal. That also appears to be essential. Immediately after the performance, Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz (ÖVP) noted that he would present a counter-proposal because he would rather grant loans than subsidies to the most affected regions in the European Union. Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte (VVD) recorded the same on Wednesday afternoon. In southern Europe, too, the compulsory reform conditions in turn provoke the necessary protest. “The time has long passed when everyone immediately agrees when the big two launch a proposal. In an Union of 27 Member States, an agreement between France and Germany is no longer a sufficient condition for reaching agreements. Although Franco-German cooperation remains a necessary step, ‘says European Politics Professor Steven Van Hecke (KU Leuven). Ultimately, it is the European Commission – albeit on the basis of the Franco-German opening move – that will come up with a proposal on 27 May that the Member States and the European Parliament will approve or reject after the necessary tug of war. modo is adopted, it means a major boost for the Franco-German axis. In addition to the recovery plan, the two agreed on a few other initiatives. They want to make the Green Deal more ambitious and European health care more robust. They also advocate further deepening of the internal market in some key areas, such as the digital agenda and the energy sector, with which the European Union should eventually increase its strategic autonomy on the world stage. “In the coming years, especially European Commissioner Thierry Breton can play a key role in this,” says Van Hecke. ‘The Frenchman has the entrepreneurial profile that the Germans love. If he is not too keen on French etatism, he can play an important connecting role, ‘it sounds. The future will determine whether it comes to that. In the last year and a half of her political career, Merkel has basically nothing to prove and will – depending on the next party chairman and the course of the corona crisis – be spared a bit more from internal criticism. Apart from the German Constitutional Court, Merkel is in other words relatively free to give its final touches a European cachet. If she really believes that Europe should take her fate into her own hands, then she still has a year and a half to work on that track. Macron, which must deliver on its European election promises in 2017, will count on Merkel’s contribution in the coming period. But if, like the past three years, the Frenchman expects Germany to suddenly jump into the deep unknown, the Franco-German engine can immediately go back into the garage.