PARIS ― It takes two to tango. And it takes France and Germany to propel Europe forward. But after recent developments, the powers that the continent usually relies on for a reboot are not ready to move together at the same pace.
After pro-European French President Emmanuel Macron won the French presidential race in May, German elections on Sunday were supposed to clear out the immediate political horizon in the European Union, with no other major vote expected before the 2019 elections to the European Parliament. This was supposed to give the E.U. time to strengthen and to cool down Europhobic movements that have won popular support in various countries like Austria or the Netherlands ― not to mention the United Kingdom preparing itself for Brexit.
But the outcome of the German elections was not what Paris ― or Brussels ― had hoped for. Not just because the far-right Alternative for Germany party, or AfD, has suddenly become number three in German politics, but also because the possible future coalition led by German Chancellor Angela Merkel will bring the pro-European environmentalist Greens together with the more reluctant ― yet by no means Euroskeptic ― pro-business liberals of the Free Democratic Party.
It takes France and Germany to propel Europe forward.
Yet even if the more comfortable left-right “grand coalition” between Merkel’s center-right Christian Democratic Union and the center-left Social Democratic Party had remained in power, France and Germany would not have suddenly become less at odds in their approach to governing the euro zone. Today, the two countries require the help of the European Commission and willing allies like Spain and Italy more than before to overcome their differences.
The current political situation in Europe is wobbly. On the one hand, there is an impatient, clear-minded French president crafting ambitious proposals through visionary speeches, such as the ones delivered in Greece and the Sorbonne, one of France’s most prominent universities. On the other side of the Rhine, there is a weakened German chancellor, trapped in long domestic negotiations to come up with a fragile governing coalition.
So is the Franco-German engine already crippled? Not necessarily. In fact, it actually may be more balanced than it used to be.
Under former French presidents Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande, France lost much of its political influence in European affairs, letting the euro crisis be mostly handled from Berlin. With Macron, Merkel is dealing with a much more German-friendly French cabinet in a country starting to deeply reform its labor market and lower its public deficit. With the U.K. leaving the E.U. and Poland isolating itself, the chancellor has no greater partner today in Europe than France. Under these new circumstances, Germany cannot afford to ignore French ideas for further European integration. Its duty is to consider them seriously.
At this moment, the hardest task ahead is the ability to strengthen the governance of the euro zone with the creation of a separate budget, parliament and dedicated minister. But there are other areas to which France and Germany can give a fresh impetus. The most obvious one is defense and security. The migration crisis has proved to the German public that wars outside Europe can become domestic issues. The terrorist attacks that have occurred in various European cities are also leading European countries to tackle security issues more seriously and in unison. Progress in European intelligence, pooling of budget resources to fund the purchase of defense mechanisms and better border security can be expected, as well as new steps in defining a common European asylum policy. The political momentum to allow these achievements to be realized is there. German Greens, known to be pacifists, cannot alone block these developments.
Regarding the euro zone itself, measures have been set up to prevent any future financial crisis from becoming a damaging sovereign debt crisis by way of a banking union. Another step that could be taken is to harmonize the taxation of company profits, which would be the beginning of some fiscal convergence. In the coming months, ideas to be discussed include protecting strategic assets from foreign investments while letting the E.U. remain open to trade, as well as other areas of deeper feasible integration such as unifying the European digital market, protecting private data or promoting innovation for a greener European economy. None of this requires redrafting a new European treaty. Once all of this is achieved, perhaps the mood will be politically suitable to return to the broader discussion of how to govern the euro zone.
The hardest task ahead is the ability to strengthen the governance of the euro zone.
But the biggest challenge for France and Germany by 2019 is not just to agree together on these issues and convince their partners to follow, but to reconcile their public opinion with the very idea of European integration as well. To do so, any referendum is considered political suicide. But there are other ways to include civil society in the decision-making.
Macron has called for “democratic conventions” to be set up in all willing E.U. countries next year. The European Commission supports the idea. If it were taken up seriously, European unity could be widely debated so that Europhobic movements like the AfD are not the only voices being heard.
European integration was not a hot-button issue during the German election campaign season. But with the far right entering the country’s Parliament for the first time since World War II, it may become one now.