The Franco-German Couple: Arranged marriage with a prenup

06 April 2018 /

A few weeks before the German general election in September 2017 I decided to do an election quiz online. Although I already had made my choice about which box I was going to tick, I wanted to know whether a computer test would come to the same conclusion. Finally, I was more astonished by the questions than by the outcome of the test: Out of 34, only one single question embraced the European Union. German foreign policy, especially in the EU framework, seemed to be no big issue in the election campaign.

Five months later the tide has turned. When I had a look at the actual GroKo (CDU, CSU and SPD) coalition agreement, the title caught my eye: “A new awakening for Europe” (Ein neuer Aufbruch für Europa).[1] Moreover, the very first chapter underlines Germany’s strong commitment to the EU project and its willingness to renovate it through more democracy, transparency, solidarity and financial investments, such as raising its contribution to the EU budget. “France” or “French” are mentioned 22 times mostly in connection with “Franco-German cooperation”, compared to only six times in the former 2013 coalition agreement.[2] Besides the question of why the European Integration rocketed to the top of Germany’s political agenda, one may also ask whether this shift is trustworthy. Is there a common ground for a Franco-German leadership in European Integration? Since the EU was never up to discussion during the campaign, we should ask ourselves whether this priority shift is legitimate and what this may imply for the future.

The tradition of Franco-German cooperation

Although the emphasis on the binational partnership came all of a sudden, the Franco-German couple has strong historical roots. The Élysée Treaty (1963) set an end to the age-long and forceful rivalry and laid the foundation for a future cooperation program in the domains of foreign and defense policy, education and culture.[3] Konrad Adenauer himself confessed that the Franco-German reconciliation was his political achievement that he was most proud of.[4] The following years were characterized by the “search for integrative balance”: Germany was gaining more and more economic and monetary power, whereas France played a more active role on the political world stage as a nation with nuclear powers and a permanent seat in the UN Security Council.[5] With the German reunification and further European Integration, France’s role as a single actor on the world stage diminished, while Germany strengthened its power in the EU framework as e.g. through a gain of suffrage in the Council and Parliament. During the Eurocrisis, final decisions resulted mostly from a Franco-German settlement, although Germany achieved to push a majority of its positions forward, being perceived as the dominant actor of the partnership.[6]

But lately, the shoe is on the other foot and this time it is the French head of state pushing Germany for EU reforms. French President Emmanuel Macron centered his campaign discourse on the support for the European project against the Euroscepticism of the far left and the right. “Europe is good for France. France can’t succeed without a strong Europe”, he said in his New Year’s speech.[7] It is not surprising that he held his Sorbonne speech two days after the German general election, neither that his very first presidential trip took him to Berlin. Moreover, during the “Jamaica coalition” exploratory talks, he sent his finance minister Le Maire to Berlin in order to defend the French call for a common Eurozone budget, which the German Liberals explicitly opposed.[8]

The unromantic prenup

So, at first sight it seems that the GroKo now responded to Macrons plans by putting the European project and the Franco-German partnership on top of the German political agenda. However, one should not be too enthusiastic when looking into the future because the new coalition agreement seems to be more similar to an unromantic prenup than a proof of love. As a matter of fact, former German finance Minister Peter Altmaier already declared at a Eurosummit in January that he “first had to lower the expectations” and in March he postponed further reforms on the Eurozone budget.[9] Regarding the EMU, Germany still insists on the well-known principle of austerity, wanting to “reduce the risks” before coming to an agreement.[10] In this context, the reference in the coalition agreement to invest more in the EU budget and to fight for a more solidary Europe seems more like an empty promise without further details than a real commitment. If we made a list of Macrons propositions such as the Europe-wide bank deposit insurance, a Euro finance minister, transnational voting lists,[11] and an own Eurozone budget, the German response would be a big NO to all of them.[12] Moreover, we find huge differences in their positions on the PESCO or the upcoming Commission president.[13]

What is missing?

It is not reproachable that the German government’s position on EU Integration may differ from Macron’s vision, the problem is how Europe is sold to the German citizens. During the campaign EU issues were not up to debate, so how can it be the number one objective of the coalition? In addition, how can “a new awakening in Europe” be sold as the major project, although it seems that there is little common ground for change? Europe is presented as a plan B to German citizens, something that was never present in the first place and it is alarming regarding the democratic legitimacy of this sudden agenda shift. If the EU is now the first priority and if reforms are going to be dragging infinite without further achievements, it will harm the government’s credibility, while Eurosceptic extremist parties are going to gain votes. It is the duty of the German government to create a discourse about Europe and to show the awareness that neither environmental, monetary, migration or foreign policy issues can be decided outside the European framework. It is already reproachable that the discourse about European identity was neglected in the first place, but now that it is priority, it has to be put into action.

Through history we can assert that the Franco-German couple was not always a partnership of love with equal shared interests, but a coalition that served as a mean to a greater good. Whether the external threat during the Cold War or the urgency to reform the Eurozone, the Franco-German matrimony was always the motor of European integration.[14][15] With Europe on top of both government’s political agendas and the latest developments in the EU, such as Brexit and the growing support for Eurosceptic parties, the moment has come to restart that motor again.

Niklas Franke is a student of the Institut d’études européennes and of ULB 


Brüssel, Alexander Mühlauer. “Euro-Reform: Altmaier dämpft Erwartungen.”, January 23, 2018, sec. wirtschaft.

Chrisafis, Angelique. “Emmanuel Macron’s New Year’s Speech: ‘France Can’t Succeed without a Strong Europe.’” the Guardian, December 31, 2017.

Delori, Mathias. “La genèse de la coopération franco-allemande au début des années 1960: L’apport de l’analyse des politiques publiques.” Revue française de science politique 56, no. 3 (2006): 409.

German Government. “Coalition Agreement (December 2013),” n.d.

———. “Coalition Agreement (February 2018),” n.d.

Gougeon, Jacques-Pierre. “Un Couple Franco-Allemand En Quête de Projets Communs.” Revue Internationale et Stratégique, no. 1 (2010): 181–186.

Karnitschnig, Matthew. “Berlin’s EU Plan: More Muddle in the Middle.” POLITICO, March 12, 2018.

Koten, Thibault. “Pour le développement du Statut de l’Association européenne, vers un espace solidaire et social européen ?” Eyes on Europe, March 8, 2018.

Link, Werner. “Integratives Gleichgewicht und gemeinsame Führung.” Merkur 66, no. 11 (November 1, 2012): 1025–34.

Meier, Albrecht. “Macron übernimmt Merkels Führungsrolle in Europa.” Der Tagesspiegel Online, December 13, 2017.

“Merkel und Macron – Mehr Abbruch als Aufbruch in Europa.” Cicero Online. Accessed March 22, 2018.

[1] German Government, “Coalition Agreement (February 2018),” n.d.,

[2] German Government, “Coalition Agreement (December 2013),” n.d.,

[3] Mathias Delori, “La genèse de la coopération franco-allemande au début des années 1960: L’apport de l’analyse des politiques publiques,” Revue française de science politique 56, no. 3 (2006): 409,

[4] Ibid., 411.

[5] Werner Link, “Integratives Gleichgewicht und gemeinsame Führung,” Merkur 66, no. 11 (November 1, 2012): 1025–34.

[6] Jacques-Pierre Gougeon, “Un Couple Franco-Allemand En Quête de Projets Communs,” Revue Internationale et Stratégique, no. 1 (2010): 183–84.

[7] Angelique Chrisafis, “Emmanuel Macron’s New Year’s Speech: ‘France Can’t Succeed without a Strong Europe,’” the Guardian, December 31, 2017,

[8] Albrecht Meier, “Macron übernimmt Merkels Führungsrolle in Europa,” Der Tagesspiegel Online, December 13, 2017,

[9] Alexander Mühlauer Brüssel, “Euro-Reform: Altmaier dämpft Erwartungen,”, January 23, 2018, sec. wirtschaft,

[10] “Merkel und Macron – Mehr Abbruch als Aufbruch in Europa,” Cicero Online, accessed March 22, 2018,

[11] For further information on the transnational list see Thibault Koten, “Pour le développement du Statut de l’Association européenne, vers un espace solidaire et social européen ?,” Eyes on Europe, March 8, 2018,

[12] Karnitschnig, “Berlin’s EU Plan.”

[13] “Merkel und Macron – Mehr Abbruch als Aufbruch in Europa.”

[14] Delori, “La genèse de la coopération franco-allemande au début des années 1960,” 409–13.

[15] Gougeon, “Un Couple Franco-Allemand En Quête de Projets Communs,” 183–84.

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