A bimonthly magazine on international affairs, edited in Germany's capital

Refounding Europe

Both Germany and France will have to show flexibility in the fields they dominate.

President Emmanuel Macron’s triumph has raised hopes that France and Germany will once more be able to move the European Union forward. Goodwill aside, both partners have leverage, and Paris’ hand is stronger than it seems.

© REUTERS/Pawel Kopczynksi

Outside of France, the French presidential election has been widely portrayed as a decisive moment for the future of Europe and the liberal order in general. And nowhere was the final contest between Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen followed more closely than in Germany, where both the political elite and the public felt that the outcome would directly impact their own national destiny.

A few weeks on the nail-biting has already been forgotten, and Macron’s likely huge parliamentary majority is being treated as something not terribly newsworthy. Now Berlin is ready to get things going with the new French president: When Macron visited Berlin one day after his inauguration, Chancellor Angela Merkel showed she has taken into account the concerns that have dominated the French domestic debate, including the need to better “protect” European (and French) workers from globalization, and is willing to help Macron enact domestic reforms by bending the growth and investment agendas. For his part, Macron is aware that Europe could become a campaign issue in Germany, and has rejected the idea of eurobonds – at least for now – which had become a red line in Berlin.

If Germany wants to move forward with France, it will however have to be willing to compromise, especially where its eurozone policy is concerned. To that end, Merkel’s strong-willed finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, has already said that Berlin was ready to be flexible in working to address France’s economic challenges. And in fact, Macron’s agenda is hardly radical: the foundation can actually be found in the 2014 Pisani-Ferry-Enderlein report, which Macron helped draft with Germany’s then-Economy Minister Sigmar Gabriel.So while Macron’s victory does not change the underlying balance of power in Europe, or the magnitude of the task ahead, there are several reasons to think that the Franco-German relationship may be on surer – and more equal – footing than many think.

First, as Merkel said during their joint press conference: “Only if Europe is doing well will Germany be doing well. And Europe needs a strong France to be doing well.” The German government knows that the success of Macron’s presidency will directly impact the future of the whole of Europe, and therefore Berlin. Germany, whose economy is naturally dependent on the economic prosperity of the continent, cannot remain blind to the difficulties of its biggest neighbor. This situation was utilized by far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon during the presidential campaign, who pointed out that Germany will have to compromise with France in order to avoid the economic and political collapse of the continent.

Second, the framing of the French election in the German political conversation gives extra leverage to the new French president. From the Germans’ perspective, Macron was the only one able to prevent the disaster of a Le Pen presidency, and the coming five years may be the last chance for Germany to work a sustainable deal with Paris. The risk of seeing an anti-European candidate become president after the 2022 elections is taken very seriously in Berlin, and the clock is ticking to find solutions before then. The official support for Macron among German leaders like Schäuble reveals this sense of urgency. The fear of seeing the European project end in five years will clearly strengthen Macron’s position in the coming negotiations.

Third, France represents more than its own weight in Europe. Although the continental balance of power clearly favors Germany, the leadership capacity of Paris, especially among Mediterranean countries, should not be underestimated. Germany’s economic hegemony in Europe is insufficient to impose total political leadership. France’s strategic and cultural closeness with some key European actors will play into Macron’s hand; indeed, Macron, who has publicly expressed “sympathy” for Southern European countries, has raised hopes in Italy, Spain, Portugal, and Greece that he may work to soften what they regard as German-imposed austerity. A more nuanced stance from the EU on austerity may even erode the support of the populist parties that have gained ground on the back of the perceived unfairness of current agreements. As the 2018 elections in Italy will be yet another major test for the future of the EU, this cannot be ignored in Berlin.

Finally, there is a certain harmony between what Macron wants to accomplish at home and what he needs to do to strengthen France’s position with Germany. The new president will first and foremost focus on domestic affairs in the coming months, and the reforms he intends to implement – especially regarding labor laws and economic bureaucracy – satisfy German expectations. France’s need to “do its homework” to be taken seriously in Berlin should not be too difficult for Macron given his promises during the campaign. This marks a clear difference from Hollande, who had to strike a difficult balance between his campaign’s domestic promises and its European commitments.

For all these reasons, France will have a window of opportunity to advocate for a new foundation of the European project, even if it meets with some resistance in Berlin. In the more immediate future, Macron will focus on short term reforms that are expected to have a direct and positive impact on France, such as the directive on “posted workers,” tighter trade rules, and tougher anti-dumping regulations, as well as a common asylum policy. In the long run, France and Germany share a common desire to overcome institutional paralysis and make the EU more efficient and effective when coping with new crises. The discussions will be centered on the so-called multi-speed Europe, and on the need to cooperate on defense and security issues. Engaging with Africa as both a security and migration challenge and an economic opportunity will be at the heart of the French-German foreign policy agenda.

In fact, the new French president may face less resistance from Berlin than from other European capitals. His plan to review the directive on posted workers is a sensitive issue for Central and Eastern European countries, while his positions on trade – symbolized by the idea of a “Buy European Act” – could be difficult to sell to traditionally pro-free trade countries like Sweden and the Netherlands. Close cooperation between France and Germany will therefore be absolutely essential to create a consensus, and the wave of optimism following Macron’s victory will have to be translated into political momentum in Europe.

In an acknowledgment of Germany’s strained relationship with the United States, as well as with the United Kingdom post-Brexit, Merkel described Europe’s destiny as in “our own hands,” and signaled that Germany had no choice but to forge a closer alliance with France, despite policy divergences. To achieve greater unity, both Germany and France will have to show flexibility in the fields they dominate – that is, the economy and defense, respectively: Germany will have to be less stubborn when it comes to reforms and burden-sharing in the eurozone, while France will have to accept that its European partners, Germany included, do not share all aspects of its outward-looking strategic culture and vision for European defense cooperation. Only then will a French-German – and European – “new deal” be possible.