The authoritative source for independent research on UK-EU relations

10 Nov 2022

A Changing EU

Volker Roeben and Jukka Snell suggest that the current rift in Franco-German relations reflects a deeper difference that stems from clashing strategic visions – one based on the idea of international interdependence and the other on European sovereignty.

It is no secret that France and Germany are going through a bad patch. Pointed differences have emerged both in EU and bilateral meetings. The absence of the UK from the EU renders the problems all the more salient. There is a greater pressure for the Franco-German partnership to deliver.

But this bad patch reflects something more fundamental. It signifies a clash of strategic visions. One such vision is the idea of international interdependence that has guided Germany but has now lost its potency.

At the same time, France has a fully articulated alternative on offer, namely European sovereignty. This involves greater European integration to better defend its values and interests on the world stage – internal cohesion leading to external power. While Germany sometimes speaks of European sovereignty as well, it has been reluctant to fully embrace the idea.

The idea of international interdependence, encapsulated in the mantra of ‘Wandel durch Handel’ (change through trade), has a long history – from Montesquieu, who wrote  ‘[p]eace is the natural effect of trade’ through to the thinking that  animated European integration. Robert Schuman, for example, called for economic cooperation between France and Germany as a first step in the federation of Europe ‘indispensable to the preservation of peace’.

The idea of international interdependence played a critical role in Germany’s policy towards Russia ever since the Ostpolitik of 1970s. In the field of European integration, Germany has been in favour of greater openness for international trade and has opposed proposals for the erection of a ‘fortress Europe’. A prime example is Germany’s insistence that the EU liberalise capital movements not just between the different EU states but also between the EU and third countries as a price for its acceptance of the single currency. This was duly written into the EU treaties, despite serious doubts harboured by France.

Germany was not alone in its belief in interdependence. In the case of China, many saw its admission into the WTO in 2001 as a way to make it into a responsible stakeholder in the global economic system. However, Germany and German companies have been particularly assiduous in pursuing trade opportunities in China, and they have continued to do so when others have become more cautious.

The idea of international interdependence seems to have been tested to destruction by recent developments. The Russian invasion of Ukraine shows that economic interdependence has not led to peace; instead, it brought energy dependency. China is becoming an Orwellian autocracy that is more aggressive than before. The idea that has guided Germany has lost its power.

France does not have the same problem. Its guiding idea is European sovereignty. President Macron articulated this with clarity in 2017, but the idea goes back to the 1956 Suez crisis.  European sovereignty starts from the premise that the world is dominated by giants such as the US and China, and that European countries are individually too weak to protect their values, especially the European combination of markets and social justice. They can only do so together and a greater pooling of national sovereignty is needed. While the pooling of sovereignty has always been a part of the EU project, this would now more deeply affect some of the most sensitive areas, such as security, foreign policy, and taxation.

Germany has on occasion referred to European sovereignty as well; for example, Chancellor Scholz used this concept in a major speech in Prague in August 2022. He argued that it ‘means… that we grow more autonomous in all fields’, singling out areas such as key technologies and defence.

However, German actions in the context of integration do not truly reflect the idea of European sovereignty. A number of recent examples can be given.

One aspect of European sovereignty is the creation of EU fiscal capacity – something that the IMF also emphasizes for the proper functioning of the eurozone. In the context of the current energy crisis, France led the calls for joint borrowing, which would represent an important move in this direction. By contrast, Germany has preferred a domestic support program, despite concerns that it distorts the internal market.

A second key aspect of European sovereignty is defence cooperation, including joint development of new capabilities. Here Germany, while increasing its defence spending, has chosen not to focus on investing in European technology projects but has instead preferred to buy off-the-shelf equipment from the US. As a key example, it is expected that the European Sky Shield Initiative will include US and possibly Israeli air defence systems, to the exclusion of the Franco-Italian SAMP/T system. Fears have also been expressed that the German purchase of the US F-35 fighter jets might endanger the European Future Combat Air System (FCAS) project.

Third, the EU’s recent investment screening regulation creates a framework for the protection of security and public order in areas such as critical infrastructure and technologies. In this context, the German government very recently approved an important Chinese investment, relating to the port of Hamburg, reportedly against the advice of the security authorities and the European Commission. It was also set to approve the purchase of the microchip maker Elmos by a Chinese company, but has abruptly changed its mind.

Fourth, France underlined the importance of Europe speaking with one voice to China in 2019, when Macron invited the Commission President and the German Chancellor to Paris to meet with President Xi. By contrast, Germany declined Macron’s invitation to coordinate Scholz’s China visit with France; instead of a joint visit, the Chancellor travelled with a German business delegation.

Altogether, it seems that Germany continues to act on habits formed under the idea of international interdependence. It has not found an alternative idea, but seems to be operating in a way often driven  purely by domestic concerns. This is putting a strain on European unity. There might even be opportunities for the UK to exploit the differences and seek closer engagement with France.

Unfortunately, the problem may not be easy to solve. Germany, by virtue of its political culture and constitutional structures, is a consensus-seeking bottom-up democracy, where finding a new way will not be as easy or quick as it might be in a more top-down system, like France or the UK.

By Jukka Snell, Professor of Laws, University of Turku, and Volker Roeben, Professor of International Law, Durham Law School. 

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