The big engine that might: How France and Germany can build a geopolitical Europe

ECFR проанализировали, как коронавирус повлиял на коалиции в ЕС. Германия заметно выделяется: страна охотнее идет на контакт. 82 % респондентов уверяют, что по вопросам европейской политики их государства обращаются именно к Германии. С республикой легко работать, потому что у ФРГ особое отношение к объединению

European Council of Foreign Relations

When French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel announced they would support a €500 billion EU bond to help with Europe’s economic recovery, it was not quite François Mitterrand and Helmut Kohl holding hands in Verdun. Due to the covid-19 pandemic, the two leaders could not meet in person. Pictures of their matter-of-fact video press conference are unlikely to be found in history books of the future. But the Franco-German agreement they reached on 19 May 2020 was nothing short of historic, as Germany abandoned its categorical refusal to accept EU-wide borrowing. The joint Macron-Merkel statement, as mundane as it may have first looked, was a bold initiative. It served as a reminder of how – when they work together and put themselves at the centre of Europe – France and Germany can shift the debate and, potentially, catalyse agreement between other EU member states.

After several years during which the Franco-German engine was running on empty, this initiative on an internal EU matter was celebrated by many. And it raised an important question: could France and Germany take an equally ambitious and forward-looking lead on foreign policy?

While, on the EU level, policymakers are currently devoting much of their attention to internal issues – especially the recovery fund and the Multiannual Financial Framework – the covid-19 crisis and the resulting economic recession have made many foreign policy challenges more acute. In Europe, China has been extremely active in its mask diplomacy and somewhat maladroit in its attempts at disinformation. The Trump administration’s Europe policy is concerning and divisive. European advances on common defence are stalling. If the European Union wants to be a player, not a plaything, on the international stage, it needs to step up on foreign policy.

On 1 July, Germany took on the presidency of the Council of the EU. Some observers have labelled it as the most important presidency in the EU’s history, a make-or-break moment. The internal policy challenges are clear, but it remains to be seen to what extent foreign policy will find a place on a crowded agenda. This policy brief draws on the results of the third edition of the European Council on Foreign Relations’ Coalition Explorer – a survey of policy experts and government officials across the EU27 – to analyse the Franco-German engine’s potential to cooperate and lead the EU on foreign policy. The first part of the paper discusses Germany’s and France’s respective roles in the EU – covering the extent to which other member states see them as leaders, as well as the state of the Franco-German working relationship. The second part focuses on the EU foreign policy ambitions revealed by the survey. It explores whether Germany and France can use their individual and combined clout to bring greater cohesion to EU foreign and security policy. And it maps member states’ views on the United States, China, Russia, and defence, while discussing areas in which there is a need for a common EU position, and in which small coalitions of states could work together. The final section of the paper analyses the coalitions that might be best suited to dealing with various aspects of foreign policy, and shows how Germany – together with France – can use the German Council presidency to build such coalitions.


While cooperation between France and Germany cannot shape EU policy by itself, the absence of a good working relationship between the two has a particularly negative impact on the EU’s ability to move forward. The EU27 survey reveals the importance of both actors; how they are viewed by each other and by their EU partners; and the potential they have to shape EU policy.

Germany’s special role

Since the publication of the first edition of the Coalition Explorer, in 2016, the overall picture has largely remained the same: Germany is the EU’s centre of gravity – its most influential country. This time, a whopping 97 per cent of respondents to the survey held this view. Germany is firmly embedded at the centre of a web of connections, relationships, and alliances that stretches across the EU. In 2020 Germany is once again not only the most-contacted country (82 per cent), receiving votes from every EU member state, but is also perceived as the most responsive and the easiest to work with (55 per cent). It ranks in first place on the question of shared interests in EU policy – albeit with only 44 per cent of the vote. If there was a beauty contest for EU coalition-building, Germany would be its winner.

The results of ECFR’s survey are in line with the ideas that German policymakers usually express about their country’s role in the EU. They like to see Berlin as an honest broker who handles competing claims and interests, not as a hegemon who makes the rules for Europe and imposes them on others. The survey shows that, in almost all policy areas, German respondents have a strong preference for making decisions based on a consensus between all member states and are reluctant to embrace differentiated integration – to work with only some EU members – as they fear that this could divide the union. German respondents expressed little desire to cooperate outside the EU framework in any of the policy areas covered by the survey. In the past, the German government has often emphasised the need to find a consensus with its European partners rather than force them into agreements. Berlin often claims to have an existential interest in preserving the European project, seeing Germany as the one country whose core task is to keep the club together.

However, Germany’s obvious coalition potential and its “self-perception as the EU’s master pupil” stand in stark contrast to its Europe policy and other member states’ perceptions of that policy. The EU27 survey shows that Germany’s relations with other states are not evenly balanced – everybody contacts Berlin, but Berlin is not equally responsive. Germany reaches out to France more often than any other EU country, followed – albeit at a distance – by the Netherlands and Austria. Spain, Poland, and Italy (in descending order) are also on the list of those contacted regularly by Germany. All other member states received few or no votes in the survey.

Moreover, many EU member states view German dominance as part of the problem. This was especially apparent during the eurozone and refugee crises, in which several southern and eastern European countries saw Germany as anything but a white knight. The repercussions of these crises can be found in ECFR’s latest survey. Greece leads the ranking of countries that express disappointment with Germany. Sixteen out of 28 Greek respondents chose the German government as the one that has disappointed their country most in the past two years. This might have been motivated by the belief that the austerity imposed on Greece – blamed primarily on Germany –weakened the country’s ability to deal with the covid-19 pandemic. In any case, when they followed the poisonous disagreements over “coronabonds” that took place in April 2020, many Greeks will have been reminded of the “Grexit” debate during the euro crisis. German leaders’ firm opposition to what they called a “transfer union” – which was still on full display when ECFR conducted the EU27 survey – likely helps explain why 18 of 41 respondents from Italy expressed frustration with Germany.

There is significant disappointment with Berlin among respondents from countries within the Visegrad group (the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia). This is especially true of Hungarians (17 of 34 respondents) and, to a lesser extent, Czechs and Poles – perhaps still due to the fallout from the migration crisis of 2015, as well as Germany’s leading role in the debate over the rule of law in the EU. Still, many respondents from the Czech Republic and Slovakia – and, to a lesser extent, Poland – say that Germany shares many interests with their respective governments. The trend is particularly apparent among Slovakians, who express almost no disappointment with Berlin. Slovakia is the only Visegrad country that has taken in small groups of refugees. It is also the only Visegrad country in the eurozone, and it wants to become part of a “core Europe”. As ECFR’s Policy Intentions Mapping shows, Slovakia has diverged from the three other Visegrad countries in several areas, ranging from eurozone governance to the rule of law.

However, the most remarkable insight one can draw from the results above concerns the Franco-German couple: 20 of 36 French respondents view Germany as one of their top five most disappointing countries. This makes Germany the EU member state that the French are most disappointed with – ahead of Poland and Hungary. At the same time, France is clearly Germany’s closest ally in the EU. All German respondents chose France as their country’s most-contacted partner. When asked about their preferred partners in individual policy areas, Germans almost always named their colleagues in Paris first. Thus, it is not due to a lack of attention that Berlin’s closest partner feels so disappointed. The roots of the problem probably lie in Germany’s perceived lack of ambitious EU initiatives or a clear vision for the union’s future. Macron – who, after his election victory, placed all his bets on the German government to jointly reform the EU – appeared to feel that Germany had left him standing in the rain, waiting for Berlin to respond to the flurry of ideas he presented.

Yet, from a German perspective, the status quo is a thoroughly pleasant state of affairs. As such, Berlin’s unwillingness to change is understandable. As it has weathered the crises of the past decade far better than most member states, Germany feels no sense of urgency to make radical changes to the EU’s institutional set-up. Even during the covid-19 crisis, Germany has done remarkably well so far. For Macron, German sluggishness was too hard a nut to crack. Before the covid-19 crisis hit the EU, he appeared to have given up on Germany and to be looking for new European alliances.

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