One couple, two seats: France and Germany renew vows after golden jubilee
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More than five decades after sealing their post-war reconciliation, France and Germany aim to inspire greater unity in a fractured Europe by further deepening their relationship – though the French have no plans to share their precious UN seat.
French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel met on Tuesday in the German border city of Aachen, known in France as Aix-la-Chapelle, to sign a new partnership between their two countries – exactly 56 years after the Elysée Treaty, signed by their predecessors Charles de Gaulle and Konrad Adenauer, sealed Franco-German friendship after World War II.
In its own words, the new agreement – referred to in the French press as the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle – aims to “deepen [the two countries’] cooperation in foreign affairs, defence, external and internal security and development, and at the same time work on strengthening the ability of Europe to act independently”.
In so doing, its proponents hope to breathe new life into a partnership – dubbed the “Franco-German couple” in France – that has been a cornerstone of European integration, and offset the centrifugal forces that are tugging at the 28-member European Union amid mounting nationalism and Euroscepticism.
"Populism and nationalism are strengthening in all of our countries," Merkel told French, German and European officials gathered in Aachen's town hall. She cited Britain's departure from the EU and mounting protectionism around the world, acknowledging that international cooperation is on the backfoot. Her words were echoed by Macron, who stressed the "growing anger" within European societies and pressure from without.
Those forces were at play in the run-up to Tuesday’s celebrations, blurring talk of the new treaty with one of the “fake news” controversies that have become a defining feature of our age. The row saw far-right leader Marine Le Pen and her supporters flood news outlets and social media with reports France had agreed to “share” its permanent seat at the UN Security Council with Germany, thereby relinquishing its “great power” status.
It was a lie, as was the viral claim that the treaty would also see France hand over to Germany the territories of Alsace and Lorraine, the focus of frequent wars between the two nations. Perhaps conspiracy theorists had been reading about past treaties of Aix-la-Chapelle, signed in 1668 and 1748, when French kings Louis XIV and Louis XV swapped territories with their foes on the other side of the Rhine.
Macron’s ‘contagious enthusiasm’
A city steeped in history and symbolism, Aachen was the capital of Charlemagne’s 9th century empire, a vast territory that stretched over modern-day France and Germany (and beyond), and is sometimes described as the embryo of a united Europe. It already hosted Macron and Merkel in May of last year, when the French president received the Charlemagne Medal “in recognition of his vision of a new Europe”.
Merkel gave a speech in Macron's honour during the prize-giving ceremony, praising Macron's "contagious enthusiasm" for the European project. "He has clear ideas on where and when Europe needs to evolve and has the capacity to inspire young Europeans," she said.
France’s most Europhile president in decades, Macron had been hoping for more enthusiasm from the German chancellor when he first called for a new Elysée Treaty 18 months ago. Since then Merkel has been forced into a more prudent stance on European integration, alarmed by the rise Eurosceptic forces in Germany and weakened by the laborious coalition talks that paved the way for her last term as chancellor. The wider context is also looking bleaker, with Brexit, Donald Trump’s America, and mutinous Eurosceptic governments from Italy to Hungary all piling pressure on the European project.
In recent months, France has been frustrated by Germany’s reluctance to press ahead with a joint Eurozone budget and a common framework to tax digital companies. But if there is one thing both countries have mastered through decades of close partnership, it is the art of compromise.
Aiming for common ground
“You can almost tell from the wording of the treaty where the French gave in and where Germany gave in,” said Hélène Miard-Delacroix, a professor of history and contemporary German civilization at the Sorbonne University in Paris. “There are so many issues on which the two countries are miles apart, so it’s perfectly normal that they have to compromise.”
Miard-Delacroix says finding common ground between two old rivals, who fought three devastating wars between 1870 and 1945, was at the heart of the Elysée Treaty. She points to two areas where the treaty worked wonders, and a third where it largely failed.
Success stories include a binding framework for regular high-level meetings between leaders, ministers and top civil servants, that “obliged both parties to take into account their respective constraints and objectives, and strive to reach a common position”. The other main achievement is an ambitious exchange programme that has seen some nine million French and German youths cross the Rhine over the years.
Military cooperation did not work so well, largely because de Gaulle wanted France and Germany to stand up to the US, whereas the Germans were not prepared to do without NATO’s protection. Soon after signing the 1963 treaty, the French president was shocked to find out that the German parliament had added a preamble reaffirming the country’s special relationship with the US. He (in)famously quipped: “Treaties are like girls and roses: They last while they last.”
France and Germany later agreed to form a joint brigade, which is now deployed in Mali. But it still has no mixed companies and the two countries’ different rules of engagement mean combat operations are largely left to the French.
Different cultural approaches mean the two countries will also find it difficult to expand their cooperation in arms exports, an objective set out in the new treaty. Germany's decision to halt arms sales to Saudi Arabia after the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi has caused friction with the French government, which has had no such qualms. Paris even threatened to pull out of the two countries’ joint New Generation Fighter project if Berlin insisted on sales restrictions.
A model for others
While France will in no way surrender its UN Security Council seat, the treaty extension stipulates that it will be a priority of Franco-German diplomacy to secure another seat for the EU’s largest and richest country – a long-standing German demand. Critics have described this as an empty pledge, pointing out that permanent members China and Russia will not allow another Western nation to be added to the five-member club.
More meaningfully, the new treaty outlines closer cooperation between national intelligence services and police in fighting terrorism and organised crime, and a commitment to moving “towards a German-French economic area with common rules”.
“The aim is to remove obstacles to daily life across the border through convergence on labour laws, health services and pensions schemes,” Miard-Delacroix told FRANCE 24. “Here as in other fields, the idea is to be a source of proposals that could be applied on a European scale,” she added, noting that Franco-German initiatives, such as the gradual removal of border checks from 1984, have often spearheaded wider change across the EU.
It is not only Europe that has been inspired by Franco-German reconciliation and cooperation, but the wider world too, says Béatrice Angrand, the secretary-general of the Franco-German Office for Youth (OFAJ), one of the most successful creations of the Elysée Treaty.
Exchange programmes fostered by OFAJ have helped “establish an intricate web of relations that is unique in the world, and envied by many in the world”, Angrand told FRANCE 24. She said Balkan nations had been inspired by the Franco-German reconciliation, adding: “I recently met Moroccan civil society activists who were interested in applying our model to relations with Algeria, and even [South] Korean academics have come to study our case with a future reunification of their peninsula in mind.”
An unnecessary treaty?
According to Marion Gaillard, a historian and specialist of Franco-German relations at Sciences-Po Paris, the deep ties fostered at the political, economic and cultural level by the 1963 treaty are indeed unique. So, she asks, why change the text?
“The original treaty was short, simple, accessible, and it offered a perfect legal basis to develop further links between the two countries,” she told FRANCE 24, arguing that a whole new treaty “really wasn’t necessary”.
Gaillard acknowledged that the new text touched on themes that were necessarily absent from the original, such as the digital economy and the fight against cyber-crime. However, she said the flexible framework of the 1963 agreement left ample space for innovations. When the relationship between the two countries failed to progress, it was through “lack of political will” and not because of the treaty’s limitations.
The real purpose of the second treaty is to make a political statement at a difficult time for the European project, she argued, describing Tuesday’s event as “an old couple renewing their marriage vows – it won’t change the way they live, but it has symbolic value”.
She added: “The Franco-German couple has always functioned on symbols and there’s nothing wrong with that – provided they are then translated into concrete action.”
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