Franco-German Leadership Back

The two giants can agree to disagree as long as they cooperate where it counts

Opinion | Dominique Moisi | September 2009

Whoever wins September’s parliamentary election in Germany, the time has come once again for a major Franco-German initiative. Regardless of their economic conditions or their confidence – or lack of it – in each other, France and Germany are more than ever jointly responsible for the future, if not the very survival, of the European project.

Are there alternatives to Franco-German leadership of the European Union? Joining Great Britain with them in a Club of Three would be a good idea, but it is out of the question nowadays. Britain has largely excluded itself from any leadership role in Europe. Gordon Brown is barely surviving as prime minister, and the Conservatives, whose return to power in the next year is almost certain, are as provincially euro-skeptic as ever, if not more so. Europe simply cannot count on the British, at least for a while.

The idea of a Club of Six, floated by Nicolas Sarkozy early in his presidency, was always abstract and is now untenable. Given Silvio Berlusconi’s sexcapades, the Italy that he leads cannot be taken seriously, while Spain is out of the running for an EU leadership role, owing to its dire economic conditions. As for Poland, although the bumbling Kaczynski "twins" have been removed from power, the country’s fixation on security in its immediate neighborhood is incompatible with true European leadership.

Since the other 21 EU members never liked the idea of a Club of Six to begin with, it is just as well that such a vision has been buried, probably forever. So where but France and Germany can Europe turn for leadership?

A positive referendum result on the Lisbon Treaty in Ireland in October would be a necessary but insufficient condition to jump-start an institutional re-launch of the EU. Above all, the EU needs political will and direction.  Only Germany and France, acting together, can convey to Europe’s citizens and to the world the sense that the EU is at long last waking up to today’s global realities. Of course, it is impossible to underestimate the combination of suspicion, tension, and exasperation that characterizes Franco-German relations lately. To a large extent, Germany has become a "second France" in Europe, at a time when France is more French than ever. And they are not only putting their respective nationalisms first. They disagree on fundamentals – most of all, about how to surmount the economic crisis.

But the two giants of Europe can agree to disagree about the virtues of German-style budgetary rigor or French-style fiscal stimulus as long as they don’t insult each other, and, more importantly, as long as they compensate for their philosophical differences with a well publicized program of joint initiatives on key subjects. As long as each remains convinced that no alternative to cooperation exists within the EU, and that European cooperation remains a priority for both, it should not be overly difficult to restore their leadership.

The fundamental question about how to deal with Russia remains a divisive issue, however. France and Germany have different sensitivities on the subject, which is both natural and inevitable, as these differences reflect both geography and history.

Germany is not only much closer physically to Russia; it is also much more dependent on Russia in terms of energy security. France must not delude itself: Germany is not about to convert to nuclear energy to reduce its reliance on Russian oil and gas. Yet Germany also must realize that Russia’s negative evolution has consequences that Germans cannot escape.

A spectacular Franco-German security initiative following the election in Germany, accompanied by a joint message to the Kremlin, would also have the benefit of sending a message to the rest of the EU, particularly to its Václav Klauses: "If you decide to paralyze the Union through stubborn ill will, you will only end up excluding yourselves, rather than dictating Europe’s fate."

France and Germany cannot move Europe alone, but Europe without them cannot move at all.


Dominique Moisi Visiting Professor of Government at Harvard and author, most recently, of The Geopolitics of Emotion.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2009.

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