Retuning Europe’s Franco-German Engine

BERLIN – Whether or not the French presidency of the EU, which begins next month, is successful will depend in large part on whether Franco-German cooperation can be revived. In that seemingly long-gone era, common initiatives for Europe were the rule, and a Franco-German proposal usually constituted an acceptable compromise for Europe as a whole. The Maastricht Treaty of 1992 was probably the last masterpiece of Franco-German creativity.

But the two countries subsequently grew increasingly estranged from one another. France never engaged enthusiastically in the enlargement process, while the creation of the euro led to serious Franco-German tensions between1993 and 1999. France’s decision to abandon military conscription in 1996 while pressing ahead on nuclear testing did little to improve the relationship. The final years of Jacques Chirac’s presidency produced mostly deadlock, crowned in May 2005 by the French “No” vote to the EU’s draft constitutional treaty.

Of course, the Franco-German engine cannot function as before. The two countries’ haughty behavior – for example, criticizing tax regimes in Eastern Europe while themselves failing to comply with the European Union’s Stability and Growth Pact – appalled other EU countries, especially the newest members. So did their arrogant claim that they alone understood “political Europe,” and would therefore sew up deals – like that on agriculture in October 2002 – bilaterally.

Even so, the EU remains dependent on France and Germany as a driving force. They may have lost authority, but without them nothing much happens in the EU. So what can be done to generate a new sense of leadership around the Franco-German axis?