Macron and Merkel signed a new Franco-German treaty last Tuesday 22nd January in the town of Aix-la-Chapelle in Germany, designed to complete and complement a treaty which was signed between the two countries in 1963. The agreement will see collaboration in several key areas: in politics (with a joint parliamentary assembly made up of both French and German MPs), economy, foreign policy, and defence.
For some, it’s a sign of much-needed unity in a world being torn apart by protectionism and populism, a symbol of European unity when everywhere else bonds are questioned and neighbours squabble. For others, it’s the beginning of a new, exclusive “super”-EU within the EU itself, which only reinforces the image of an EU which is controlled by just a few of its member states. Some judge it to be too weak and unambitious; others see it as giving away some of the countries’ sovereignty.
For the former Vice-Chancellor of Germany, Sigmar Gabriel, he Aix-la-Chapelle treaty “isn’t enough”. He criticised that the treaty prioritised Germany’s relationship with France instead of pursuing a more balanced set of partners, including with other European countries, the UK, and the United States. Not only that, but the move could be seen negatively by those same other partners – while it strengthens the reconciliation between Germany and France, it “excludes all others” and could therefore aggravate tensions within Europe.
He uses a strange metaphor for today’s Europe in the context of Brexit: “In a world of geopolitical carnivores, we Europeans are the last vegetarians. Without the UK, we are going to become vegan, and a possible prey.”
No matter our interpretation of the treaty (and of Sigmar Gabriel’s strange dietary metaphors), it is a symbolic show of togetherness for two leaders who are facing crises in their mandate: Macron is struggling to appease and end the “gilets jaunes” crisis, which continues to rage each weekend across France’s major cities, while Merkel’s party is losing its majority and her mandate is coming to a close in 2021.
So it’s true that a French-German alliance isn’t going to cut it to face Europe’s many current challenges. And France and Germany don’t always have the same wants or needs. The two countries, while both seen as major players on the European stage, with formidable strengths in their economy and reputation, have very different perspectives. France was recently disappointed when Merkel was too reluctant to support any kind of tax on the big digital multinationals (Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon – often known as GAFA), and Germany is said to be hesitant about France’s lofty EU reform ambitions while it has its own reform challenges closer to home. Moreover, Germany is attached to its pacifist traditions (preferring not to use its army), while France hopes for greater commitments in terms of military defence abroad. As a result, they have adopted a “mutual defence” clause [source], allowing the two countries to work together in response to terrorist threats, and to cooperate on large military programs and the development of military planes and tanks. Proof that disagreeing parties can find some kind of compromise, when they really put their minds to it.
Is the treaty significant, in the grand scheme of things? Not hugely. But as we’ve seen in recent political turbulence, sometimes small things can contribute to bigger issues. It remains to be seen what the new Franco-German Assembly might or might not do…