The German or French way? International interdependence vs European sovereignty
Volker Roeben and Jukka Snell suggest that the current breakdown in Franco-German relations reflects a deeper difference that stems from opposing strategic visions – one based on the idea of international interdependence and the other on European sovereignty.
It’s no secret that France and Germany are going through a bad patch. Sharp differences emerged in both European and bilateral meetings. The UK’s absence from the EU makes the problems all the more salient. There is greater pressure for the Franco-German partnership to deliver.
But this bad patch reflects something more fundamental. This means a clash of strategic visions. One of these visions is the idea of international interdependence which guided Germany but which has now lost its power.
At the same time, France offers a fully articulated alternative, namely European sovereignty. This requires greater European integration to better defend its values and interests on the world stage – internal cohesion leading to external power. While Germany also sometimes speaks of European sovereignty, 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]“Peace is the natural effect of trade” up to the reflections that animated European construction. Robert Schumanfor example, called for economic cooperation between France and Germany as a first step in the federation of Europe “indispensable for the maintenance of peace”.
The idea of international interdependence has played a central role in Germany’s policy towards Russia since the Ostpolitik of the 1970s. In the field of European integration, Germany has spoken out in favor of greater openness to international trade and opposed proposals to build a “fortress Europe”. A prime example is Germany’s insistence that the EU liberalize the movement of capital not only between individual EU states, but also between the EU and third country as the price of its acceptance of the single currency. This has been duly enshrined in the EU treaties, despite serious doubts by France.
Germany was not alone in believing in interdependence. In the case of China, many saw its admission to the WTO in 2001 as a way to make it a responsible player in the global economic system. However, Germany and German companies have been particularly diligent in seeking business opportunities in China, and they continued to do so when others became more cautious.
The idea of international interdependence seems to have been tested by recent developments. The Russian invasion of Ukraine shows that economic interdependence has not led to peace; instead, it resulted in energy dependency. China is becoming a more aggressive Orwellian autocracy than before. The idea that guided Germany has lost its power.
France does not have the same problem. Its guiding idea is European sovereignty. President Macron Speak clearly this with clarity in 2017, but the idea dates back to 1956 Suez Crisis. European sovereignty is based on the principle that the world is dominated by giants such as the United States and China, and that European countries are individually too weak to protect their values, in particular the European combination of markets and social justice. . They can only do this together and a greater pooling of national sovereignties is necessary. While pooling sovereignties has always been part of the EU project, it would now affect some of the most sensitive areas more deeply, such as security, foreign policy and taxation.
Germany has also occasionally referred to European sovereignty; for example, Chancellor Scholz used this concept extensively speech in Prague in August 2022. He argued that this “means…we are becoming more self-sufficient in all areas”, distinguishing areas such as key technologies and defence.
However, German actions within the framework of integration do not really reflect the idea of European sovereignty. Several recent examples can be given.
One of the aspects of European sovereignty is the creation of the EU’s fiscal capacity – something that the IMF also emphasizes the proper functioning of the euro area. In the context of the current energy crisis, France has led calls for common loan, which would represent an important step in this direction. On the other hand, Germany preferred an internal market support programdespite the concerns he deformed the internal market.
A second key aspect of European sovereignty is defense cooperation, including the joint development of new capabilities. Here, Germany, while increasing its defense spending, chose not to focus on investing in European technology projects, but instead preferred to buy standard equipment from the United States. As a key example, the European Sky Shield initiative is expected to include US and possibly Israeli air defense systems, to the exclusion of the Franco-Italian SAMP/T system. Concerns have also been expressed that Germany’s purchase of US F-35 fighter jets could endanger the European Future Combat Air System (FCAS) project.
Third, the recent EU 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 agreement investment, concerning the port of Hamburg, apparently against the advice of the security authorities and the European Commission. He also had to approve the purchase of the microchip maker Elmos by a Chinese company, but suddenly changed his mind.
Fourth, France stressed the importance for Europe to speak with one voice to China in 2019, when Macron invited the Commission President and the German Chancellor to Paris to meet President Xi. On the other hand, Germany declined Macron’s invitation to to coordinate Scholz’s visit to China with France; instead of a joint visit, the Chancellor traveled with a German business delegation.
On the whole, it seems that Germany continues to act on habits formed under the idea of international interdependence. It hasn’t come up with an alternative idea, but seems to operate in a way that is often driven solely by national concerns. This puts European unity to the test. There may even be opportunities for the UK to exploit 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 bottom-up consensus-seeking democracy, where finding a new path will not be as easy or quick as it might be in a more top-down system, such as France or the UK.