Fifty-year treaty party comes at low point in Franco-German relations
By Honor Mahony
Franco-German relations are about to be celebrated in style.
The entire French government, most of the Assemblee nationale, plus a handful of senators – about 600 people all told - will decamp to Berlin on Monday (21 January) and Tuesday.
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German leader Angela Merkel will receive President Francois Hollande in the federal chancellery. Hollande will receive her in the French embassy. The governments will meet jointly. The parliaments will meet jointly. Hollande will be treated to a military parade. There will be several press conferences and photo opportunities, as well as much talk about friendship.
The celebrations are to honour the 50-year anniversary of the Elysee Treaty, a post-war reconciliation pact signed by the two countries' former leaders, Konrad Adenauer and Charles de Gaulle, in 1963.
The treaty marked the de-facto creation of the so-called Franco-German motor, seen as essential for further EU integration.
The political engine worked for many years, powered by pragmatic friendships between leading figures from both sides - Valery Giscard d'Estaing and Helmut Schmidt; Francois Mitterand and Helmut Kohl. The phrase itself became a catchall for all kinds of Franco-German political canoodling – often resented - on EU issues.
Now, as Hollande and Merkel pay tribute to bilateral relations, those days are over.
In Brussels, there is little talk in the present tense of the Franco-German motor.
The seeds of change started at the end of the 1990s. Germany started to work on structural reforms that would release it from the label of economic 'sick man of Europe.'
At its helm, for the first time, was a populist social democrat chancellor who was willing to publicly ask what Europe could do for Germany - a reversal of the norm.
In 2004, a year after the 40th anniversary of the Elysee Treaty was celebrated, 10 more member states joined the European Union, waekening the Franco-German axis.
Over the next few years market reforms in Germany started to take effect. France, for long the better performing economy, made few such changes.
But still the bilateral ties continued to be useful. Germany could camouflage its increasing political weight by coupling with France. Paris, on the other hand, was able to disguise its Gaullist outlook of France above all by playing up its relations with the more EU federalist-minded Germany.
Then came the economic and financial crisis.
Now in its sixth year, the crisis gradually laid bare what had been hidden in plain sight: Germany is the most economically and political powerful state in the EU. With the weight came responsibility. Berlin was thrust into the role of member-state-in-chief.
Germany says it is committed to making the eurozone work. But it wants economic and political commitments in return, including from France.
This has knocked the core of the relationship off keel. Berlin grumbles that France expects Germany to dig into its pockets but is itself unwilling to undertake reforms. Paris thinks Berlin is all about forcing austerity fellow member states without corresponding solidarity. The schism is reflected in major policy areas - such as creating a banking union, seen as key to helping the eurozone out of the crisis and preventing another.
Whether a country should be more or less like Germany played a role in France's 2012 elections. French Prime Minister Hollande in his election campaign came close to playing on anti-German sentiment. German Chancellor Angela Merkel openly backed Hollande's conservative predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy. Relations between the two leaders have not improved much since.
The economic shift affects how the two countries' peoples view one another.
While 63 percent of French people believe their country should aspire to Germany's economic model, jJust 29 percent of Germans think the same of when it comes to the French way of running the economy.
And, according to the same recent survey by French public research institute Ifop, only 18 percent of Germans think there should be a privileged partnership between the two countries. More than double (45%) of French think there should be one.
The balance of power between the two has not been completely recalibrated.
France remains a leader in foreign policy and defence issues - as its military interventions in Libya and now Mali show.
But relations are now something that have to be actively worked at.
"Despite the general impression, France and Germany are still the decisive engine for compromise in the EU," Germany's EU affairs junior minister Michael Link said recently.
In contrast to the past, such declarations sound less like statements of fact than aspirations.