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New Impulses for Stagnant Relationships - German-French Ministerial Council Meets in a New Format Analysis, Friedrich-Naumann Stiftung, October 18, 2023

As the doors of the illustrious Hôtel Beauharnais on Rue de Lille 78 swung open on the evening of 4 October, and the masses streamed into the German Embassy in Paris to celebrate German Unity Day, the reports of the currently strained state of Franco-German relations seemed almost surreal. 


The new German Ambassador, Stephan Steinlein, graciously welcomed the nearly thousand attendees gathering in the hall. It buzzed with the presence of dedicated individuals from the spheres of politics, business, and society, all sharing a mixture of concern and hope as they eagerly anticipated the German-French Ministerial Council scheduled for 9 and 10 October in Hamburg.

The outcomes of the German-French retreat, kept discreet and overshadowed by the events in Israel, hold the potential to breathe new life into the stagnated Franco-German relations. They provide an opportunity to address contentious issues in an informal setting, eschewing grandiose public commitments.

There is no shortage of initiatives, as highlighted in the project document of the Aachen Treaty. Following succinct presentations by an academic and a startup entrepreneur, delving into two major themes—the transformation of our societies through industrial change and the associated social cohesion, and technological sovereignty along with the application of Artificial Intelligence (AI)—in-depth discussions among cabinet members ensued.

Chancellor Olaf Scholz summarised that the discussions were exceptionally candid and held in an atmosphere of trust. However, a picturesque snapshot of shared fish sandwiches and a boat ride on the Elbe River should not obscure the fact that the disagreements between Germany and France are of a substantial nature, and despite the expressed political will, they are unlikely to simply dissolve into thin air.


Structural issues of German-French relations

Even though the German-French discord, particularly at the highest political levels, repeatedly comes to the surface, while unity and active exchange between the two countries are continually emphasized in the parliamentary arena, it would be a gross misjudgement to believe that the relationship problems between Germany and France are not of a structural nature. Looking into the intricacies of these complex relationships, it quickly becomes evident that, despite ongoing efforts in youth language exchanges and developmental programs, deep-seated mutual ignorance and misunderstandings persist across the breadth of both societies. This is demonstrated by the recent announcement, just before the German-French Ministerial Council, of the reduction of Goethe Institutes in France (including important cities like Bordeaux, Strasbourg, and Lille). In addition, there is a dramatic decline in German teachers and German learners in France and both French and German expertise in various research centres, foundations, or in the university context are considerably reduced. French students have become a rarity even in integrated binational study programs, to the extent that, for example, German students who completed their bachelor's degree entirely in France are counted as French in their master's programs. Therefore, it would be overly simplistic to attribute the lack of understanding for the respective partner country solely to the political level.




In the energy sector, the divisions are particularly entrenched

Given this context, the deeply ideological debates, especially in the field of energy, over the reform of the European electricity market, pitting nuclear energy against renewable energy, seem to be less productive. A European-level agreement on this matter is expected to be reached by the end of October, as announced by President Emmanuel Macron and Chancellor Olaf Scholz in their joint press statement on October 10th.

While a German-French working group on hydrogen, initially convened in April 2023, has not yet led to a convergence of positions, Germany and France should become more aware of the complementarity of their respective energy mixes and develop a better understanding of each other. Only with an approach that is open to technological development, joint investments in new technologies can succeed.


Joint Defence Projects as a Response to New Geopolitical Challenges

Ever since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, it has become abundantly clear that old assumptions about supposedly reliable partners like Russia or China have become obsolete. In this new world marked by shifts in the balance of power away from the pax americana towards a multipolar global order, a common geopolitical vision and military-strategic orientation for Germany, France, and the EU are essential.

While Germany and France generally agree on their support for Ukraine, the coordination processes in foreign and security policy outlined in the Aachen Treaty signed nearly five years ago often seem to diverge rather than converge.

Germany repeatedly displays hesitation when it comes to supplying new weaponry and often needs to be persuaded by France to take the next step. Even though Germany has moved beyond its initial announcement of supplying only helmets and protective gear to providing Leopard 2 tanks, which can be considered a significant development, it is still primarily focused on rebuilding its own military capability rather than strategically engaging in geopolitics.




Embracing EU Reforms as an Opportunity to Formulate a Positive German-French Agenda

On the occasion of the German-French Ministerial Council on 22 January, a German-French expert group was established to provide recommendations for institutional reforms within the European Union. The group has now presented its report to the two State Ministers for Europe, Anna Lührmann and Laurence Boone. The report outlines various scenarios, ranging from fundamental treaty changes through a European Convention, realistically not expected before 2030, to incremental steps within existing treaties. It also presents concrete proposals for enhancing the democratic structure and efficiency of European decision-making processes. Of particular concern to Germany is the transition from unanimity to qualified majority voting. However, despite France's general commitment to take this step, it remains uncertain to what extent France would be willing to entirely relinquish its national prerogatives, especially in the reserved domain of the French President, in foreign and security policy, and potentially be outvoted by Germany in Brussels.

German and French visions for the upcoming EU enlargement and the report's outlined four concentric circles of varying integration levels within and outside the EU, including the European Political Community, remain unclear.

Diplomatic sources suggest that even within the Élysée, there is no precise idea of how this format, proclaimed by Emmanuel Macron in his speech to the European Parliament on Europe Day, 9 May 2022, will be institutionally anchored.




>>> Full article on the Website of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation

Artificial Intelligence bilateral relations Emmanuel Macron European Energy Policy French-German cooperation Europe European Union Germany