A letter to revive the excitement of Europe’s power couple
By Alexandre Escorcia, Deputy Director, Policy Planning Staff, Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Development, Paris
Dear German Federal Government, By the time you get this letter, the nerve-racking process of forming your new incarnation may be drawing to a close. And although outsiders are used to being puzzled by the inordinate amount of time that it takes to form a German government after any Bundestag election, the difficulty of the exercise was certainly even more peculiar this time around: Reconciling the views of Greens with those of the “yellow” liberal Free Democratic Party for the sake of a “Jamaica” coalition with Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats represents a task nothing short of squaring the circle. And as we have all learned in art class, mixing green and yellow is liable to result in something wishy-washy rather than exciting.
Dear new German government, you will be born into a complicated world that burdens you with expectations. So although you might still be absorbed with character formation at this point in time, I cannot but provide you with some perspectives on what one of your closest future friends and partners expects you to do, once you rise from the sometimes confusing pubescent phase of forming a coalition.
Germany’s political future matters a great deal to us French. The success of our new President’s European agenda, as set out in his Sorbonne speech on September 26th, hinges to a significant degree on German goodwill to act. For one thing, we need German compromise in order to establish effective eurozone governance, including political oversight, a significant budget and a completion of the banking union. Progress in the area of social and fiscal policies is another priority.
I know what you are thinking: There go the French spendthrifts again, off to a shopping spree with the hard-earned savings of honest working Germans! But these concerns do not take into account the full picture, and particularly disregard the very real budgetary consolidation efforts by the French government, past and current, which have a direct social and political impact. More fundamentally, this clichéd insinuation reflects differing conceptions of a monetary union and different views on debt and public action. Here is what the Germans should know: In France, not only left-wing firebrands but also serious economists debate whether a high level of public debt matters at all in an open economy with structurally low interest rates. What is more, many French have also noticed that the German fiscal probity conceals not only questionable balance sheets deep down in the cellars of some German regional banks, but also insufficient investments in infrastructure. Anybody who has recently driven down a West German Autobahn might have noticed this. It has not escaped the rest of the world either that the German current account surplus, while undoubtedly a sign of good economic health, is not sustainable in the long run unless we want an unhealthy and dysfunctional global economy.
Not only the economic environment, but also the current strategic context requires a European moment, most importantly due to increased security risks in Europe’s neighborhood, an ever more assertive and aggressive Russia, an unpredictable nuclear North Korea, and the retreat of the US administration. Whether Europe will be able to seize this moment depends in part on the continued evolution of Germany towards a country that punches its weight on the international stage. And although the wave of refugees that Chancellor Merkel received in the summer of 2015, in a move that will have defined her chancellorship for better or for worse, has already modified that strategic calculation, the traditional restraint of the Free Democratic Party in foreign and security policy as well as the pacifist streak of many Greens may produce an unsavory blend to French taste.
Admittedly, Paris’s calls for Berlin’s involvement on the world stage are sometimes predicated on a desire to have Germany blindly follow the French lead, without sufficient consultation of German or other European partners. Still, we have moved beyond the point where an exclusive culture of restraint is a viable option for any German government. Germany now has a direct interest in the stability of its neighborhood, not only because its economic prosperity as an exporting nation depends on it, but because its internal social balance may now hinge on whether a significant part of the hosted refugees are in a position to eventually return home.
In the end, dear German government, we all know that France and Germany will have to get along in some fashion or another. All our partners expect from us that the Franco-German motor – though after “Dieselgate” we should probably retain the more romantic French expression, the Franco- German couple – will provide the necessary impulses for Europe.
And we know that progress will have to rest on a meaningful compromise, one that is acceptable to our German partners but also reassures our Eastern partners that we care about the integrity of the European Union. While our marriage might be arranged, it lies in our hands to turn it into a successful relationship. So this is a heartfelt plea for renewed French-German cooperation, which in my view hinges on two fundamental elements: realizing how deeply interconnected the challenges we face really are, and moving beyond our clichés in order to tackle them. From Paris, with love!
The views expressed here are not those of the French government or the French Ministry of Europe and Foreign Affairs.