From Franco-German motor to German-French condominium over the EU. A brief chronicle of the European Union’s Pétainisation

The European Commission Building
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After the glory days of the Franco-German couple under Giscard and Schmidt and, in a more ambiguous mode, under Kohl-Mitterrand – this time is driven by events more than by any real ambition – the motor stopped.

The Schroeder-Chirac agreement in October 2002 on capping the EU’s agricultural budget was the first public manifestation of this. But the signs of this German U-turn – of this shift to Prussian time, of this defeat for the champions of a European Germany – had accumulated over the previous decade. President Mitterrand had not responded to Chancellor Kohl’s enquiries about a possible mutualisation of the French nuclear deterrent. In 1994, the French political establishment had not been responsive to the idea of a “European hard core”, a proposal made by two key figures of the CDU, Wolfgang Schäuble and Karl Lamers. In 2000, France remained silent in the face of German foreign minister Joschka Fischer’s proposal for a European federation, a proposition publicly supported by Chancellor Schroeder in January 2001.

The “Prussian party”, comprising supporters of a national-centric project, had previously been in the minority. Now it is back in the mainstream. It gained new support among those disappointed with the European approach and found a leader in Chancellor Schroeder. He broke with the European project and opted for the old German alternative based on mercantilist imperialism and a close alliance with Russia.

Thanks to the inertia of the now-defunct ambitions of the 1990s and also due the enlargement in Central and Eastern Europe, the EU 15 managed to agree on a draft constitution, 2004’s Treaty of Rome.

But in France the power of myths remains strong. The myth of being one of the victors of the Second World War, based on a substitution in the French national conscience of the British and Americans, liberators of Western Europe, by Charles de Gaulle, redeemer of Pétainism.

The belief that during the Cold War, the French nuclear deterrent could have guaranteed France’s independence, whereas at most it created the conditions for vassalization. The idea that French membership of the UN Security Council was the recognition of an exceptionalism and not the result of a British and American wish not to repeat the humiliations of the Treaty of Versailles – and more importantly, the result of a pragmatic calculation on the part of the Soviets and Americans to “accompany” a country that was being called upon to dismantle its empire.

Meanwhile, the true European and French political genius of the 20th century, Jean Monnet, was forgotten, confined to the margins of French national history.

All these illusions and this self-regard, combined with the loss of France’s clout due to the rise of the emerging countries, resulted in a lack of impetus and vision in the 2005 referendum campaign. Accordingly, 55% of the French population rejected the Treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe.

Since then, Europe has been drifting along with soulless, project-less leadership. The Merkel decades on one side, Sarkozy-Hollande-Macron on the other. Merkelian Germany has pursued, without ever saying so, the Prussian policy inaugurated by her predecessor.

Sarkozy-Hollande-Macronian France has pursued, independently of rhetoric, the dream of a French Europe. In this self-unaware Europe, Putin’s Russia has had a field day. It has bought silence and complicity in the establishments of the member states, especially in “old Europe”. It has supported all the advocates of the national-sovereignist approach, whether they are allegedly outside the system or part of its governing bodies.

Following the invasion of Ukraine in February, positions were shaken and certainties shattered. But this was thanks to NATO, American leadership and the political mobilisation of the “new Europe”. Europe’s complacency towards the Putin regime has not been swept away, especially in those countries for which the Union is above all an instrument at the service of a national project: Germany and France. This shared outlook has given rise to a cohabitation of convenience in which, on sensitive issues, each side tries to find a solution that does not thwart the other’s national project. With the departure of the United Kingdom, this alliance has been considerably strengthened, to the point that Germany and France can now be considered as exercising a real condominium over the European Union.

Thus, behind the official stances of solidarity with Kyiv, the attitude of Germany and France – two countries that were, it is worth recalling, the most opposed to Ukraine’s membership of NATO on the grounds that it could have provoked Moscow – remains ambiguous to say the least. To the point that it is not forbidden to think that Paris and Berlin do not really believe in a victory for the aggressed party nor, a fortiori, in the absolute necessity of this for Ukraine, for Europe and for the free world. And that they are also considering future relations with the aggressor.

The German government’s parsimony and slowness in following up on its promises to supply arms to Ukraine is certainly cause for concern. On the banks of the Seine, where arms are supplied in all directions, there is no particular eagerness to provide the Ukrainians with what they urgently need. On the economic and commercial front, neither Berlin nor Paris seems to be exerting significant pressure to get the big German and French industrial groups to withdraw from Russia. Only the “dialogue” approach seems to be flourishing. The German chancellor and the French president have made countless telephone calls to the master of the Kremlin.

But it is on the question of Ukraine’s accession to the European Union that the German and French positions are the most revealing of the extent of German-French condominium over the EU – and, by the same token, of the centrality of NATO (and the United States) in shaping and implementing support for Ukraine, including by the EU member states.

Because as far as the Union – and only the Union – is concerned, the situation varies. Thus, President Macron does not believe that it is possible to “open an accession procedure with a country at war”. This is a strange position to take when there is no legal argument to support it and when more than 20 member states consider that it should be a priority. It is also a form of selective amnesia when one recalls that in 1940, on the initiative of Winston Churchill – and Jean Monnet – the British parliament proposed to France – which was at war – the creation of a Franco-British Union with a single parliament and a single government. Charles de Gaulle, then Under-Secretary for Defence and War, supported the plan. But the leader of the government, Paul Reynaud, who was somewhat favourable, was sacked the next day and replaced by Marshal Pétain.

Only two figures from “old Europe” – the European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, and the Italian prime minister, Mario Draghi – have taken an unambiguous stand in favour of granting Ukraine candidate status and opening accession negotiations quickly. Like the leaders of the Central and Eastern European states and other countries that support a Ukrainian EU accession process, they have fully appreciated what is at stake not only for the Ukrainians but for all Europeans and, last but not least, for the EU itself.

Ukraine’s accession is a more than legitimate aspiration of the Ukrainians and a fundamental instrument for strengthening the rule of law, the democratic system and the economy of this great country. However, it has also become a vital necessity for the EU and its member states, in that it would be decisive in breaking the hold of the German-French condominium on the EU and thus would contribute to the EU’s democratic rebalancing.

The political and institutional status quo of the last twenty years – based on German-French condominium, whether by default, opportunism or intellectual laziness – is in any case already doomed. As necessary as it may have been, the German decision to devote 2% of spending to defence and €100 billion to overhauling the German army is in itself already leading to profound changes in the balance of power within the Union. The days of the French army’s qualitative and quantitative superiority are numbered and, with them, the chimera of France’s pre-eminence in a future European defence architecture.

But, beyond the case of France, the war in Ukraine is another illustration that the old chestnut of Europe’s strategic independence – even if relative, via a “European pillar of NATO” – is a pure illusion in the short and medium term.

Within the Union, the much-vaunted progress in the field of defence (European Defence Fund and Permanent Structured Cooperation) represents little more than a Europeanisation of R&D costs and a nationalisation of the benefits – essentially to the advantage of the French-German condominium.

As for the strategic compass dear to the High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP), it is a compass without a ship, without a captain, without a crew and without an owner. Unless, of course, one considers as a “ship” an assembly of 5,000 soldiers from various national contingents, pompously described as a European rapid reaction force. This project, which was already somewhat risible before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, is now a mere obsession of bureaucracy.

At the Versailles summit, instead of the EU taking a leap of faith, some twenty member states had to fight all night to get confirmation of Ukraine’s European vocation, only to see it openly called into question by President Emmanuel Macron and Prime Minister Mark Rutte as soon as the summit was over. As if, in such a situation, the member states could not take a few liberties with formal procedures and decide to grant Ukraine the status of candidate country immediately, leaving a few weeks for the Commission to finalise the procedure allowing the formal opening of negotiations.

The EU’s encephalogram is flat

In a Europe with a minimum of self-awareness, this decision should have been taken in a few minutes, allowing the heads of state and government to start a real debate on the other initiatives in support of Ukraine that the Union could and should take. These include political and institutional initiatives that might lay the foundations of a genuine EU common foreign and security policy, equipped with adequate military and diplomatic instruments.

Unless there is a radical change of course by the 27 member states that translates into unwavering EU support for Ukraine and the EU’s awakening from its deep coma through the adoption of CFSP rules and instruments, the fate of the EU is sealed: a slow and gentle “Pétainisation”. The European Union will be transformed into a puppet institution within a completely renationalised continent, with Berlin and Paris in charge and a few theatrical performances in Brussels. A political fiction that could even find an interlocutor in Vladimir Putin.

(Translation: Harry Bowden | Voxeurop)

EPP Lithuanian office
EPP Lithuanian Office
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