Times are rough for the European Union. The news coming from Britain grows more depressing every day. Italy is governed by a maverick government searching for an open confrontation with France. Hungary and Poland are slowly slipping into authoritarianism. And we are headed for a European election in May that could result in further gains by populist parties.
It is tempting, then, to see a ray of hope in an agreement by Germany and France, announced on Friday, for a eurozone budget, which the two countries will present to their fellow member states. Maybe, after years of delay, Paris and Berlin are finally taking the initiative to reverse Europe’s seemingly unstoppable, slow-motion disintegration.
Not so fast. This latest deal aside, France and Germany, both founding powers of the European Union and its most powerful members, have been growing increasingly at odds. The discord is driven in part by differences over concrete policy proposals. But the bigger, intractable problem is a fundamental difference in their visions for Europe.
This being Europe, the two countries have done their best to paper over their differences with rhetorical displays of unity. In November, French president Emmanuel Macron stood on the floor of the German Bundestag to deliver a speech marking the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I. Not holding back, he described the Franco-German relationship as one of “love” — a love born of the many catastrophes of the 20th century. On Jan. 22, the two countries even renewed their vows, so to speak, by signing an update to the 1963 Elysée Treaty, which announced a new era of comity between the two former enemies.
At these occasions, Germany seemed happy to adopt the French line on Europe, which President Macron laid out in a speech at the Sorbonne University in September 2017: the idea of a deepened, “sovereign Europe” with a strong common foreign and defense policy, a “Europe that protects” its citizens.
Mr. Macron believes, and Germany seems to agree, that the atrocities of the 20th century are no longer enough to justify all the effort to integrate Europe — especially the notion of a sacred Franco-German union. Speaking in Aachen, Germany, in January, he called the reconciliation of a once-warring Europe “chose faite” — “a task accomplished.” Both countries agree that many of the real threats to European peace today loom outside its borders: terrorism, the new great-power competition between China and the United States, and Russian interferences in European elections, to name just a few. A new narrative is needed, and it needs to be practical rather than proto-religious.
But rhetoric is easy; extruding it into a compelling unified vision, let alone specific policies, is much harder. And so far, when it comes to anything beyond mere talk, the gap between the two countries grows ever wider.
Here are just a few examples: Germany and France deeply disagree on a strategy regarding European-American trade talks, even as American auto tariffs loom. The German economy relies on exports to the United States, especially cars, and would gladly accept higher agricultural imports to offset its trade surplus in manufactured goods. But France, whose agriculture lobby is strong, has so far resisted such concessions.
Or consider the tensions leading up to a last-minute compromise over the controversial Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which, when completed, will carry Russian natural gas into Germany and on to Western Europe. France had pushed hard for European control over the negotiations, while Germany insisted on taking the lead. Germany, which is home to several companies involved in the Russian-led consortium building the pipeline, supports it; much of the rest of Europe is skeptical, if not afraid of it as a geopolitical threat. France’s concession to Germany, allowing it to remain the lead negotiator, does not hide its deep philosophical difference: While France insisted on a collective European action, Germany defended its self-interest over its neighbors’.
The list continues into the field of defense and security policies. Last year, Germany unilaterally put a hold on exports of weapons to Saudi Arabia after the murder of the journalist Jamal Kashoggi — though both countries had pledged to coordinate their export policies — angering France. The two countries diverge on their assessment of the trans-Atlantic relationship, and on how sharp a reaction is needed toward China’s geopolitical and technological expansion. (They did agree to renew their cooperation on developing a replacement for the Eurofighter Typhoon, but that was more of a business decision than a political one.)
In public, Mr. Macron and Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, are amicable, and no one is warning of a political crisis — yet. But Germany’s resistance to Mr. Macron’s vision for a new European compact means that for now the two countries will continue to drift apart.
Weirdly, my country, Germany, still seems to be lacking all sense of urgency. It does not have a competing vision, so much as a competing motive. Perhaps it has grown complacent in an era where its economic dominance on the Continent has too often meant that, for better or worse, it gets its way when it comes to European Union policy.
In a fracturing European Union, it is up to France and Germany to keep things together, which means that Germany needs to compromise, even if it comes at a political cost at home. Covering the stalemate under a thick layer of love talk won’t be enough to transcend the troubles of the Franco-German relationship. France and Germany do not lack love. We don’t even lack understanding. We lack action.
Anna Sauerbrey, a contributing opinion writer since 2015, has been an editor and writer at the German daily newspaper Der Tagesspiegel since 2011.