Analyst / Fundación Alternativas
his 2023 marks the sixtieth anniversary of the Treaty of Élisée, the beginning of a long Franco-German friendship that has been marked by ups and downs. After costly wars for both countries, this agreement paved the way for a common foreign, security and cultural policy. But what is their relationship like today? Today, the European engine is fraught with serious tensions. Especially in the areas of energy, as well as defense and security, Germany and France are struggling to find a common approach. The bilateral summit in January was supposed to give a new impetus to their alliance. In light of the upcoming Spanish presidency of the Council of the European Union from July 2023, it is also interesting to take a look at Spain’s role in this constellation.
Effects of differences within the German coalition on its foreign policy
Looking at Germany’s domestic policy, it is clear that the current coalition (consisting of the Social Democrats, the Greens and the Free Democrats) is quite divided, as they have different views on issues such as the war in Ukraine, inflation, energy transition, climate change, etc., to name but a few. Recently, there was a fierce debate over the supply of tanks to Ukraine, which was accompanied by confusion over who is really leading the project – German Chancellor Olaf Scholz or Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock? Not surprisingly, Berlin cannot hide these differences, which is why other countries, such as France, are putting themselves on alert.
It doesn’t take a political expert to realize that the dynamic between Germany and France has changed since Scholz has been in office, and not necessarily for the better. At first, the new coalition appeared as a beacon of hope to give new impetus and stimulate the bilateral relationship. Especially given that the coalition is made up solely of pro-European political parties. However, the Russian invasion of Ukraine completely altered the agenda.
Energy is always a major sticking point
Apart from the fact that Germany and France employ different energy models, they also have different positions on gas price capping. The consideration of an EU-wide energy price cap is at the center of the debate. While France accuses Germany of being selfish and hurting the entire EU, Germany fears aggravating the current situation. The €200 billion energy budget, which Germany adopted in response to exploding gas prices to support German households and businesses, was received very negatively by the other countries, as it goes against the supposedly common EU approach. Following the instant sanctions immediately after the outbreak of the war, Germany cut off gas supplies from Russia and introduced a new energy model. In this context, the MidCat and BarMar pipeline projects caused new tensions between Berlin and Paris.
Although BarMar is mentioned in the final declaration of the bilateral summit in January, there is a strong controversy over hydrogen production. Therefore, it would be advisable to review the classification of green energy at the EU level. Assuming that hydrogen produced from nuclear power can be considered green, competition between Germany and Spain is to be expected, as both countries are pursuing the same approach. At this point, it becomes clear why Germany and France should not be seen solely as a bilateral cooperation, but rather as the basis for a more open and multilateral collaboration.
U-turn in security policy?
Right after the outbreak of war in Ukraine, Scholz announced a radical reorientation of German foreign policy in his famous “Zeitenwende” speech. But to what extent is the U-turn visible one year later? One can get the impression that this speech was rather symbolic. It certainly sent the right signals and demonstrated Germany’s support for Ukraine. However, the materialization of these changes is proving to be very slow, leading to new tensions between Germany and France. Bearing in mind that they are the most powerful countries in the EU and no single member state is strong enough to guarantee political stability on its own.
In view of the severity and brutality of this war, Germany’s performance is rather poor, not living up to its own expectations and standards. As far as the delivery of tanks is concerned, Germany has also been conspicuous by its wait-and-see attitude. In other words, the US had to take action for Germany to react. For historical reasons, it may be understandable that Germany could not go beyond its principles, e.g., delivering weapons to countries at war. However, the repercussions of Germany’s underinvestment in its military are now becoming apparent. France, on the other hand, spent heavily in the defense sector, motivated by the goal of maintaining a defense industrial base in Europe.
The Future Combat Air System
Several defense systems have been put in place. The Future Combat Air System (FCAS), originally launched by Germany and France and now also joined by Spain, is one of the largest European projects. However, it is not only the financing that is triggering discussions, but also a roadmap on how to proceed that is at the center of the talks. In addition, the project goes hand in hand with a great deal of bureaucracy, as putting contracts into practice is a lengthy process. Deciding where to procure from and how the money is concretely invested are just examples of the many important issues. As far as the triangular relationship is concerned, it is favorable to have Spain, as it allows a wider operational range. The problem does not lie in having several participating countries, but in reconciling the interests of the industrialists. This is where the repercussions of the project’s lack of political orientation become visible.
European Sky Shield Initiative
14 NATO members adopted the new air defense system known as the European Sky Shield Initiative (ESSI), initiated by Germany. France, however, did not participate. Instead, it prefers to have its own project with Italy. The large number of different defense systems reveals the extent to which EU member states struggle to find the best modus operandi, even if they ultimately pursue the same goal. What is at stake is whether Europe is capable of standing up and helping Ukraine. After all, it is not only about maneuvering with a sophisticated and unique weapon system, but also about having basic logistics and interoperable troops.
Hopes were high for the German-French engine, but there is increasing talk of an obsolete alliance that has failed to live up to expectations. Instead of reviving its leading position on behalf of Germany and France, there has been a perceptible power shift: the Northeastern European states have become the focus of attention.
Summit in January
In essence, the summit was rather symbolic. Both sides stressed the importance of a functioning relationship, but were very vague in their statements. In the end, they issued a joint statement to stipulate shared projects in battle tanks, space programs and hydrogen production, among others. However, Europe is set to lose ground if Germany and France do not remain united.
Spain wants to participate more actively
As a final remark, Germany and France must be careful not to be perceived as an exclusive club. On the contrary, they need to strive to exchange more with other partners, e.g. Spain. At a time of weak leadership at the hands of Germany and France, the Spanish president, Pedro Sanchez, may have gained influence. Geopolitically, the Zeitenwende doctrine has not demonstrated the intention of strategic autonomy, at least so far. The war in Ukraine should not result in dependence on other great powers, neither on the US nor on China. That is why strategic autonomy cannot be stressed enough. Finally, the Zeitenwende doctrine was not necessarily a 180-degree turn in Germany’s foreign policy, but merely a wake-up call to recognize and address once and for all the Bundeswehr’s long-standing deficits.
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