13th February 2014 – by Vivien Pertusot* - europeangeostrategy.org
France, Germany, European Union, flagsHearing German leaders speak about foreign and security policy is music to the ears of the French. They have so often lectured their neighbours for evading the topic that former Defence Minister Thomas de Maizière vented his frustration a few days after becoming Interior Minister: Germany has no lesson to receive from anyone, not even France or the United Kingdom (UK). As true as that may be, there however seems to be a shift in official discourses about the role of foreign and security policy in German politics. The temptation to embrace those first blips on the radar screen is quite acute in France, but caution must prevail. Despite a few successes, cooperation in security and defence is probably the weakest link in the Franco-German couple. As Claudia Major rightly put it, there has been too much pathos and not enough pragmatism. Should there be the possibility to reignite a dormant cooperation, the French government should take German recent declarations and commitments for what they represent: the beginning of a process.
For the past few years, the Franco-German relationship has been struggling. The growing disparity in power perception and economic outlooks between the two countries has strained the quality and the depth of the partnership. The width of the bilateral cooperation is impressive, but there should be no mistake; the relevance of the Franco-German relationship for both countries is defined by their partnership on the European Union (EU).
Security and defence is often the first domain to feel the blowback, because it has always been the toughest sector to get off the ground. France and Germany have achieved some successes: the creation of EADS – now rebranded Airbus Group – the Eurocopter Tiger, etc. Yet, even those successes have experienced the affects of the Franco-German couple and have only come to fruition thanks to the profound commitment to the partnership ingrained in the two countries’ leadership.
It has become cliché to say that the French still view the world as a place where the military instrument is a tool of foreign policy, whereas the Germans wish it away. It has not refrained French administrations to present the partnership as the backbone of L’Europe de la défense. This presidency is no different. Just a few weeks after François Hollande took office, the two armaments directorates were signing a letter of intent to relaunch bilateral military cooperation. Most of the themes discussed have stalled since. Foreign and security cooperation was included in the declaration of the 50th anniversary of the Elysée treaty last year, but the language was conspicuously vague and deferential.
The early enthusiasm faded away, yet the French government has not given up on its commitment. In his first press conference of 2014, François Hollande laid out a three-point plan to boost the Franco-German couple on the eve of the Franco-German Council of Ministers on 19 February. The French President argued in favour of more cooperation with Germany on security and defence ‘to act in favour of L’Europe de la défense’, because ‘we must do more than a brigade’; referring here to the Franco-German brigade.
Caution is optimism
This persistent commitment is welcome, but it is essential not to have blinders on. Recent speeches by German Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen have rekindled hopes that Germany is changing its tune on foreign and security policy. That she recognises the need for Germany to show that it is a reliable partner to France in African operations undoubtedly warmed French hearts. The possible deployment of the Franco-German brigade to EU Training Mission (EUTM) Mali is another sign of the potential new way forward.
However, let us not get carried away. The tone has changed, but Germany still has some way to go for it to show that this is not a one-hit wonder. The Franco-German partnership on security and defence is fraught with difficulties and ideology. It has always been too ambitious for what both countries were ready to commit to. At this stage, it seems that the bilateral cooperation can be revived through military operations. Then, keep the ambitions modest and accept this as the starting point of a new process. The more politics gets in the way with high hopes and flagship projects, the more a healthy relationship based on confidence-building measures will be difficult to achieve.
Moreover, France should not put all its eggs in the same basket. The partnership with Germany at a bilateral level as well as a means to revive l’Europe de la défense shall not monopolise the precious little political capital the government is devoting to defence cooperation. Despite the common interests underpinning the Franco-British cooperation, it has been ailing because of a lack of political support; some other partners in the Scandinavian and Baltic countries have shown interest to cooperate with France. All of them may not be natural partners, but they can be willing and they can be able.
* Mr. Vivien Pertusot is an Associate Editor of European Geostrategy. He is also the Director of the French Institute for International Relations’ office in Brussels. He writes here in a personal capacity.