Merkel’s light footprint on Franco-German relations
Chancellor Angela Merkel will leave active politics after the German federal elections on 26 September 2021. As Merkel’s departure after sixteen years will resonate across Europe, the Clingendael Spectator invited several international experts to offer their personal reflections on her legacy. In this second episode of the series ‘Europe after Merkel’, François Heisbourg (Special Adviser Fondation pour la Recherche Stratégique) explains why, from a French perspective, the relationship with Merkel has often been irrelevant.
During her sixteen years as chancellor of Germany, Angela Merkel interacted with four French presidents, all hailing from different parts of the political spectrum: Jacques Chirac, Nicolas Sarkozy, François Hollande and Emmanuel Macron.
This asymmetry naturally had its effects, whether in terms of personal chemistry, which was noticeably poor between Merkel and Sarkozy, or of divergent domestic political priorities, since France had four successive chief executives while Germany only had one. However, these considerations are less important in determining the actual course of French-German relations than institutional factors.
In France, the president has the last as well as the first word on all major decisions and direct responsibility for foreign and defence policy, which is also marked by a high degree of continuity and cross-party consensus. As a result, the German chancellor has a single interlocutor in Paris who enjoys a high degree of constancy on issues of sovereignty from one president to the next.
From the French perspective, the relationship with Merkel has often been irrelevant in dealing with foreign policy or defence issues
In contrast, the German chancellor (along with the government itself) operates within the limits of a politically binding coalition contract. In constitutional terms, she is constrained by the so-called Ressortprinzip, giving each minister a high degree of autonomy, including in areas of sovereignty.
This clarifies the absence in Germany of an interagency body such as the American or British National Security Council (NSC), or the French Conseil de Défense. The lack of such a central body explains why it is so difficult for Germany to formulate and conduct an integrated foreign and security policy.
It also explains why from the French perspective, the relationship with Merkel has often been irrelevant in dealing with foreign policy or defence issues. For example, when France intervened in Mali in 2013, it was the reticence – not to say the backbiting – of German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle (from the Free Democratic Party; FDP), which was the reality of the moment. French troops were not allowed to use German transport aircraft and there was nothing the chancellor could do about it.
And, when Sigmar Gabriel (of the Social Democratic Party; SPD), as German vice-chancellor in charge of economic affairs (and by extension of arms sales policy), decided in 2014 that Germany would no longer abide by the long-standing and permissive Schmidt-Debré agreements of 1971 on arms exports, démarches by President Hollande vis-à-vis Merkel were essentially pointless. This was important since it is hardly possible to develop a viable long-term business plan for joint weapons programmes between France and Germany if there is no agreed policy on arms exports policy.
Eventually, the negotiation of the Aachen Treaty on Franco-German cooperation, signed in January 2019, reduced the issue to manageable proportions. Still, this was not a step forward for French-German defence relations, but simply an attempt to re-establish a modus operandi which existed before it was unilaterally discarded by Sigmar Gabriel.
When the SPD, as a partner in the Große Koalition1 , wanted to punish Saudi Arabia for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018, it imposed a broad-spectrum ban affecting ongoing and prospective arms transfers and spare parts. Although this was arguably an excellent decision, it affected the long-term interests of Germany’s French (and other) partners, who were not consulted on the matter.
Major joint defence programmes (such as the Future Combat Air System) need legal and regulatory stability over several decades, not spur of the moment, disjointed, party-political decisions. This was neither discussed in Germany in an NSC-type framework, nor with Germany’s partners.
On the whole, French policymakers understand the constraints of the Ressortprinzip and coalition politics. Nevertheless, this reality has been a source of particular frustration under Merkel, whose long-lasting leadership and personal popularity created the mistaken presumption that she had more power than is usual in the German system.
Furthermore, Merkel’s relative lack of importance on defence and security issues is not the mere mechanical outcome of these constraints. After all, the successive coalition contracts could have been written up differently if she had given as much importance to these issues as, for instance, to budget management or the minimum wage. But neither the political Zeitgeist nor her own preferences led her in that direction.
Germany’s decision to welcome refugees has reduced the pressure of refugee flows towards France
Germany’s political system and institutions certainly put the emphasis on compromise and consensus-building. But in certain circumstances, Merkel has proven that she was as capable as the most interventionist French president to take radical measures if she put her mind to it. Two examples stand out.
First, in 2011, on the eve of a heated regional election in Baden-Württemberg and in the wake of the dramatic Fukushima disaster, Merkel announced the shutting down of all nuclear power plants, even if this meant continued reliance on dirty, carbon-rich coal and Russian natural gas. Second, in 2015, as many thousands of desperate refugees sought entry into Germany every day, she decided to throw open Germany’s doors, a politically high-risk but eventually successful venture.
These decisions affected French interests less than appeared at first blush. For the time-being, France’s nuclear power plants produce more than enough baseload electricity, which finds a ready market in anti-nuclear Germany. Moreover, Germany’s decision to welcome refugees has reduced the pressure of refugee flows towards France.
From a French perspective, what will remain of Merkel’s sixteen years at the chancellery’s helm is the difficult but ultimately positive management of the eurozone crisis from 2010 to 2015, and the management of the economic aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Although discussions were often contentious, Sarkozy and Hollande worked hand-in-glove with Merkel, and the same has been true during the coronavirus pandemic on the part of Macron.
The existence of the Franco-German relationship proved essential in political terms to the survival of the euro and, most likely, of the European Union. During Merkel’s tenure, the Franco-German relationship has remained the default mode of European affairs, and served as an anchor for European stability during the eurozone crisis.
Recently, the relationship also served as a platform for bold new initiatives: the Franco-German couple made the Next Generation EU recovery package possible, a fund of 750 billion euros. However, this fund remains far short of being the functional equivalent of post-revolutionary America’s Hamiltonian moment – as Wolfgang Schäuble, president of the Bundestag, has pointed out2 , nor is it clear that the size of the fund is adequate to kick-start an EU-wide recovery.
The French will miss Merkel as a reliable and prudent chancellor
The question is whether the Franco-German relationship will be sustained and eventually reinforced after Merkel leaves the scene and as a new governing coalition emerges this autumn in Germany. The ‘mainstreaming’ of the German Greens gives ground for hope.
There has already been a steady flow of discussions between the German Greens and French officials, including Macron, to prepare the ground for the new post-electoral dispensation – assuming, as is the case here, that the French presidential elections next spring do not offer us a nasty post-pandemic surprise. However, those obstacles which have prevented substantial progress in the security and the defence arenas under Merkel will remain formidable, even if a future German coalition including the Greens were to signal a revival of the Joschka Fischer-spirit of the late 1990s.3
The French will miss Merkel as a reliable and prudent chancellor. Conversely, there will be few tears shed for the successive coalitions she headed, not least because FDP and subsequently SPD partners tended to be unhelpful vis-à-vis France’s security and defence positioning.
- 1A governing coalition of the parties CDU/CSU and SPD.
- 2Wolfgang Schäuble, ‘Are we risking a debt pandemic?’, GAVI, 21 April 2021.
- 3See: ‘Speech by Joschka Fischer on the ultimate objective of European integration’, at the Humboldt University in Berlin, 12 May 2000.