A Franco-German bargain to save Europe
     
After a deluge of crises the next few years will confound the doubters
      
by: Philip Stephens
    
 

The importance of the Treaty of Rome lay in the fact that even at the moment of signature Germany and France did not agree. Germany wanted the common market, while France was more enthusiastic about the new atomic energy agency, Euratom. Bonn was keen to abolish tariffs on manufactured products; Paris was determined to protect the incomes of its farmers.

The future strength of the European enterprise rested on a shared willingness to put aside such differences in the cause of compromise.

There is a mythology, particularly prevalent in Britain, that says that the EU has always reflected a close identity of interests and outlook between the continent’s two largest nations.

This explains the success of what has been called the Franco-German locomotive.

The reverse is true. The Germans and the French have argued from the outset about the shape of Europe. In Paris, integration has been about building a firebreak against an overmighty US.

For an Atlanticist Germany, Europe has been a route back to national reunification and the way to banish the demons of recent history.

Shortly before the Benelux nations came up with a blueprint for a European Economic Community, France had scuppered German plans for a European defence association. In the decades since the Rome treaty, Germany’s federalist inclinations have frequently collided with the Gaullist preference for national sovereignty.

For France, the single currency was an instrument to contain its partner’s economic dominance. For a Germany reluctant to surrender the Deutschmark, the euro was the necessary route to its desired political union. Berlin is mostly protective of the EU’s smaller nations, France disdainful.

The habit of compromise has been entrenched by the Elysee Treaty — an agreement that by institutionalising bilateral co-operation at every level of government has generated centripetal force to counter the natural centrifugal forces. Even here, a close observer will spot the forced accommodation. The treaty’s German-language text includes an affirmation of the transatlantic relationship; the sentiment somehow never made it into the French version.

Such agreements have served at once as a foundation and catalyst for the wider bargains within the EU that have driven the process of unifying Europe. If France and Germany could bridge their differences in the search for a shared European interest — the one sacrificing sovereignty, the other, ultimately, giving up its precious national currency — how could their partners in the enterprise refuse to make their own compromises?

British politicians never quite grasped this, wasting their time instead in a vain quest to drive a wedge between two nations. Germany’s instincts are almost Anglo-Saxon, the argument has run, so surely we can prise it away from France?

Theresa May has absented herself from the celebrations to mark the Rome treaty’s 60th anniversary, but, on past form, the prime minister will try the same divide-and-rule tactic when Brexit negotiations get under way. And once again it will fail. Germany’s Angela Merkel does want to strike a reasonable deal with the departing UK, but not at the expense of her relationship with Paris.

The deluge of crises these past few years has robbed European leaders of a capacity to think about opportunities. Stagnant economies, a eurozone under siege, the rush of new migrants and the new populism have drained confidence. No one has lost money betting against Europe. Even now, a breakdown of the Brexit talks could destabilise the union. Marine Le Pen’s bid for the French presidency puts a still darker cloud on the near horizon. Were the National Front leader to win, nothing would be certain.

So what better moment to imagine the opposite. That the skies may be lightening, that the Europe of the next few years, albeit in a modest way, will surprise the Jeremiahs, and that the process will start with another political bargain between Germany and France.

The odds are that Ms Le Pen will lose — to the independent centrist Emmanuel Macron, the favourite in the presidential race, or, possibly, to the Republican party’s François Fillon. Mr Macron is the more pro-European of the two; and Gaullist Mr Fillon the more radical about economic reform. What unites them is a recognition that something has to be done to break France’s economic stasis and consequent political enfeeblement. France has to modernise to become relevant again.

Berlin has been waiting for just this message. France’s weakness has left Germany exposed and the EU unbalanced. By default, Ms Merkel has found herself at once the continent’s reluctant leader and its principal villain.

The chancellor wants above all to restore the old partnership with Paris. So does Martin Schulz, the Social Democrat challenger in this autumn’s German election. Mr Schulz would find Mr Macron the more amenable partner. So might Ms Merkel. Both would try to make it work with Mr Fillon.

There is no magic formula to fill the cracks in a fractured union. A Franco-German locomotive has less traction in an EU of 27 than six. But a restored relationship between Berlin and Paris would be an important source of confidence. It might also mark the beginning of a new “core Europe” with the will and capacity to deepen co-operation. Hard as it is to be optimistic about Europe, it is time to temper some of the pessimism.

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