Can France and Germany steer Europe to success? Annual report 2019

Annual report
06 February 2020

Since its foundation in the 1950s, the EU has seldom been free from trials and tribulations. But the past few years have been particularly challenging. The club is surrounded by strongman leaders who spurn its liberal internationalist values and disregard its preference for a rules-based order – Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The first two would happily see the EU disintegrate. The EU also has to contend with the growing geopolitical and economic heft of China, whose autocratic leader, Xi Jinping, professes respect for global trading rules but shares few European values.

Some of the EU’s own governments play fast and loose with the rule of law – most egregiously in the case of Hungary, but in several other members, too. Beyond the Union’s boundaries, several parts of the neighbourhood are unstable and combustible. The refugee and euro crises, though less acute in 2019 than in previous years, still fester, with the potential to poison relations among the member-states. Europe’s economy needs to adapt to rapid technological change while finding ways of drastically curbing carbon emissions and overcoming worsening regional disparities. And the UK, once one of the most influential member-states, is finally leaving the EU, three-and-a-half years after its referendum.

Faced with these and many other difficulties, the EU needs to develop a steely resilience. Part of the answer is creating the conditions in which economies can innovate and grow, while regional disparities are curbed. Another part is coping effectively with major problems like migration and climate change. The EU also needs to be firmer with member-states that show a lack of respect for the rule of law. It needs a new and better policy for stabilising its neighbourhood that does not depend solely on the offer of accession (French President Emmanuel Macron’s penchant for concentric circles or gradations of EU membership may offer a way forward). And Europe must find the capacity to unite on the big geopolitical challenges that it faces, such as how to handle the US, China, Russia and Turkey.

Finally, Europe needs effective leadership, which has been sorely lacking in recent years. The EU institutions do their best, and quite often propose sensible policies. Ursula von der Leyen, the new Commission president, has made an ambitious start, saying that she wants to run a more “geopolitical” Commission. However, the key member-states are unwilling to let the institutions lead Europe’s responses to the most pressing strategic challenges. The European Commission enjoyed a golden age in the time of Jacques Delors, who was president from 1985-95, but the political climate is now much more favourable to ‘inter-governmentalism’.

Throughout the EU’s history, France and Germany, often acting together, have provided backbone and stability, and their relationship is the focus of this essay. There were periods of great amitié, as when the couple were led by Charles de Gaulle and Konrad Adenauer, Georges Pompidou and Willy Brandt, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing and Helmut Schmidt, François Mitterrand and Helmut Kohl, and Jacques Chirac and Gerhard Schröder.

There have been occasional rough periods, too. The arrival of Tony Blair as British prime minister in 1997, for example, disrupted the couple – on winning office in 1998 Schröder made his first visit to London, not Paris. There were several years of a London-Berlin love-in before common agricultural interests and opposition to the Iraq War brought Paris and Berlin back together and into conflict with London.

When the tandem works well, the formula has tended to be the same: because France and Germany have such divergent interests, are governed so differently and disagree on so many issues, they have known that if they can find a common approach, it is likely to work, not only for them, but for most of the EU. Traditionally, the two go on negotiating, if necessary at great length, until they reach a compromise. The Maastricht treaty – negotiated in 1991 – was in some respects the fruit of this formula. Mitterrand got Kohl to accept economic and monetary union (EMU). Kohl made Mitterrand sign up to EMU on German terms, with an independent central bank, and also accept the (ill-defined) concept of political union. One element of this delicate compromise was France acquiescing in German reunification in 1990.

But towards the end of the first decade of this century, the Franco-German tandem became troubled, and in some ways less influential. First, the EU enlargements of 2004-13, which brought in the Central and East European countries (CEECs), diluted the combined clout of Paris and Berlin. A German-French accord was still necessary but no longer sufficient for the EU to move forward. Paris and Berlin might well agree on what the EU should do, as they have done, for example, on responses to the refugee crisis or to climate change, but the Central Europeans could take a different view and block a common EU line.

Second, there was a problem of imbalance. With reunification, Germany became the much larger partner, but so long as the French economy performed relatively well, the disparity was not too serious. Then from around 2005, the year that Angela Merkel became chancellor, the German economy powered ahead, while France’s struggled, especially after the financial crisis. Then in 2010 came the euro crisis, on which France and Germany took diametrically opposed views, and which catapulted the biggest creditor country, Germany, into a leadership role. As a result of that and of her diplomatic skills, Merkel gradually became Europe’s pre-eminent leader. No major deal could be brokered at the European Council without her involvement. Nicolas Sarkozy had considerable energy but flitted about all over the place, while François Hollande (who became president in 2012) said rather little in the European Council. Merkel’s political standing in Germany became ever stronger, while the domestic position of French presidents often looked shaky. In an increasingly lopsided relationship, German leaders started to lose respect for the French.

The arrival of Macron, elected in May 2017, promised to rectify these imbalances. Macron displayed a Sarkozy-like energy but seemed to be more focused and effective in implementing his ideas. His strategy was to push through economic reforms in France, get the economy growing and thus win credibility with the Germans – who would then buy at least some of his ideas on eurozone reform.

Part of this plan worked. Macron did pass more reforms than his predecessors, for example on labour markets and welfare. The economy did pick up and is now growing more strongly than that of Germany, which has been hit badly by a slowdown in manufacturing demand and trade around the world. But Germany remained largely indifferent to Macron’s ideas on eurozone reform, and this increased the frustration in Paris. 

Differences of substance

It is not just short-term, contingent factors that explain this rocky period in Franco-German relations. There are important differences of substance too. The Germans are broadly happy with the way the EU and the eurozone work, and see the risk rather than the opportunity of substantial reform.

They regard both the EU and the euro as success stories. The EU has spread peace, stability, prosperity and security across much of the continent, enshrining the Germans’ love of rules-based order, and thus helping to banish the demons of their past.

Meanwhile the euro has been good for the German economy and its export industries, delivering a not-too-strong currency while keeping inflation low. The European Central Bank has been too willing to loosen monetary policy, and too willing to boost demand, in the eyes of some Germans. But overall, Berlin has managed to limit Germany’s obligations to support poorly-performing southern European economies. And if, say, Greece or Italy faces a crisis, the governance of the eurozone is not to blame, according to many influential Germans, but rather the individual countries concerned. Their governments should have done ‘their homework’, as a popular (but somewhat condescending) German phrase goes, by implementing structural reforms and following the EU’s budgetary rules.

However, the French in general and Macron in particular consider such views complacent. They think the EU has never faced greater challenges and that it risks being squeezed between the US and China as they start to dominate the 21st century. They are not just big economies, like the EU, but also strategic actors, which the EU is not. Hence Macron’s emphasis on the need for European strategic autonomy, by which he means not only the ability to act in foreign and defence policy but also the need to be sovereign in areas like data and technology.

As for the eurozone, Macron believes – as do Mario Draghi, many international economists, and the CER – that in the long run, it needs a ‘central fiscal stabilisation function’, to provide support for members that face difficulties; that is to say, a substantial eurozone budget. As second best, Macron thinks, the eurozone needs properly co-ordinated fiscal policies. That would require countries with spare capacity in their budgets, notably Germany and the Netherlands, to spend and invest more, to help boost demand elsewhere in the eurozone.
Macron’s plan for a eurozone budget was more-or-less killed off by the Germans and their allies in the Dutch-led ‘Hanseatic league’. They ensured that the budget will be very small and that it cannot be used for stabilisation – which shifts the argument back to whether national fiscal policies can be co-ordinated to the same effect. 

Without radical reform, argues Macron, the eurozone may not survive the next crisis. But the German government regards such talk as alarmist. Senior figures in Berlin say they would take French ideas more seriously if the French could get their own borrowing under control, instead of increasing their public debt and breaching EU budget rules, year after year.

It is true that in 2019 a debate began within Germany on whether the ‘black zero’ (the coalition government’s commitment to avoid increasing public debt) should be re-thought. The Greens and some figures in the SPD favour a policy that would allow more borrowing for investment purposes – an idea that the BDI (the German industry federation) now supports. Even Jens Weidmann, the hard-line president of the Bundesbank, has said that the commitment to a balanced budget should not become a fetish. Public opinion has become more favourable towards infrastructure spending, even if that entails more public debt.

But most of the CDU remains strongly opposed to loosening German fiscal rules, let alone the less stringent EU ones, believing that support for these rules is an important conservative credential. Conservative economists and senior officials in government argue that reflation in Germany would help most eurozone economies only very little. And German public opinion remains firm in its opposition to establishing some sort of transfer union within the eurozone.

In addition to these substantive arguments there are issues of trust between Paris and Berlin. In June 2018, Merkel and Macon agreed on a common approach to eurozone reform, among other things, in the ‘Meseberg declaration’. Germany appeared to be moving closer to French thinking, for example on the need for a eurozone budget. But a few days later at the European Council, the Hanseatic League shot down most of the French ideas, and the conclusions were far less ambitious than those of the Meseberg declaration. Some senior French figures accused the Germans of having sneakily agreed to the declaration while knowing that the Hanseatics would step in to squash the key ideas.

Domestic politics and character

Disagreements on the substance of policy have been sharpened by the political circumstances of both leaders. Merkel faced re-election a few months after Macron moved into the Elysée, but suffered a big fall in the CDU’s share of the vote. After a long delay, she formed another ‘grand coalition’ with the SPD, while saying that she would not fight another election. All this left Merkel considerably weaker within her own party and the country than she had been. Even if she had wanted to endorse Macron’s plans for eurozone reform, she would probably have lacked the strength to push many of his ideas through the Bundestag.

The French complain that the current German government is weak, introspective and dysfunctional. For example, in November the finance minister, the SPD’s Olaf Scholz, offered a roadmap for completing the banking union, including a scheme for common European deposit insurance, which had been a taboo in Berlin. It was a serious proposal that moved the German position closer to the French, despite coming with many conditions attached. But the plan was immediately attacked by senior figures in the CDU, while the chancellor herself called it a mere “contribution to the debate”.

Meanwhile, Merkel and other Germans are increasingly frustrated with Macron’s behaviour. They dislike his public criticism of Germany (they tend to criticise France in private rather than in public), his increasing reluctance to consult them before taking initiatives, and his penchant for bold, dramatic interventions that are grandiose but lacking in detail. The Germans believe that Macron’s over-the-top behaviour is rooted in his domestic weakness: his fear of Marine Le Pen explains some of his unilateral policy initiatives (see below). But they think that in the long run, he will learn that he cannot achieve much unless he works with Germany.

Differences of character certainly do not help. The French repeatedly complain about Merkel’s lack of vision, what they claim is her inability to think outside the box, and her ponderous slowness, which contributes to what they call German immobilisme. Merkel is a sober and dour person who resents Macron’s mercurial behaviour, and the way he often appears to launch a new policy on the spur of the moment, sometimes without the knowledge of his officials. The Germans also fret about his apparent indifference to upsetting other member-states.

In the final phase of her chancellorship, Merkel sees her legacy as having been a leader who kept Europe together during a very difficult period. She believes that her key task is to prevent divisions deepening among the 27. Such an approach has led to strains with Paris, because Macron’s ideas, being radical, tend to be divisive. Macron’s style is to take bold initiatives in the hope of shaking up a too-complacent EU – for example by proposing a eurozone budget, a Europe of concentric circles or a European Intervention Initiative for defence co-operation.

For all these difficulties and tensions, France and Germany still work well together on many dossiers. For example, they have more-or-less agreed on the EU’s responses on migration and refugees, on climate and the ‘Green new deal’, on appointments to the key EU jobs (such as the presidencies of the Commission and the European Central Bank), on handling the Ukraine crisis through the ‘Normandy format’ of talks with the Ukrainian and Russian presidents, and on Brexit.

And in some areas where they have previously clashed, there are signs of at least partial convergence. On China policy, for example, Germany is becoming less focused on purely commercial opportunities; it is starting to share some of France’s concerns about possible security threats, and German firms now worry about the theft or forced transfer of their technology and intellectual property, and about unfair subsidies to Chinese firms. And in the related area of competition policy, more people in Germany are coming to respect the French view that the EU needs ‘European champions’, that industrial policy should not be a dirty word, and that the Commission, when ruling on whether mergers create too little competition, should sometimes regard the relevant market as global rather than European.

At a formal level, too, the Franco-German partnership looks in good shape. The two countries signed a new concordat, the Treaty of Aachen, in January 2019. Merkel and Macron took part in a joint summit with China’s Xi Jinping in Paris in March 2019, while the previous October they joined Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Istanbul to discuss Syria.

Yet in Paris and Berlin some of the figures most committed to Franco-German friendship fret that both sides are starting to behave in a much more unilateral manner than they would have done in the past. Some German politicians acknowledge that not only France but also their own country has been guilty of unilateralism. For example, Germany did not consult its EU partners over its support for the Nord Stream 2 Russian gas pipeline, although it will increase the EU’s dependency on Russian energy and cause tensions with the US. In March 2019, Merkel kept the French in the dark before saying that she would allow Huawei to compete for contracts in parts of Germany’s 5G network; she ignored the French view that Huawei was a potential security threat and that there should be a common EU response to the Chinese company (she has subsequently faced a strong push-back from senior figures in her own party). And then Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer (AKK), the German defence minister and CDU leader, failed to talk to France (or the SPD-led German foreign ministry) before launching a new initiative for a safe zone in Northern Syria in October 2019, despite the presence of French troops there; French officials were withering in their comments about a proposal that had not been prepared thoroughly or thought through. 

Four areas of discord

The biggest rift between France and Germany remains over eurozone governance (see above). But there are major tensions in at least four other areas, in all of which French unilateralism has annoyed Germany.

One of these is how to respond to President Donald Trump’s protectionism. He has slapped steel and aluminium tariffs on imports from the EU, and talked about extending them to other goods. Macron believes that the best way to change Trump’s behaviour is to stand firm against him. German leaders, however, are fearful that Trump may carry out his threat to put tariffs on European car exports, and would willingly seek a compromise. Thus Germany is keen to move ahead with an EU-US trade deal, which could include reductions on car tariffs by both sides. To make the deal interesting for the US, some Germans would happily include agriculture. But that would be anathema to France and its farmers, who have insisted on farming’s exclusion from the trade talks, thereby – in the view of the Germans and many others – reducing the prospect of a deal.

In the summer of 2019, when the Council of Ministers was discussing a draft mandate for the Commission for the trade talks with the US, several changes were made to satisfy France. But then at the last minute, France voted against the mandate (which was in any case adopted). It did so because Macron had to placate a Green politician who was due to play a leading role in the campaign for the European parliamentary elections. The Germans were not amused. Nor are they happy about French opposition to other EU trade deals, such as its threat not to ratify the FTA that has been negotiated with Mercosur. There are similar tensions over France’s enthusiasm for taxing America’s digital giants; Berlin is much warier of upsetting Washington on digital taxes than is Paris.

A second set of disagreements concerns EU enlargement. In November 2019 France vetoed the start of EU accession talks with North Macedonia and Albania. It was alone in doing so for North Macedonia – which in the view of many observers had met the conditions set by the EU for the start of talks – and almost alone on Albania. Seen from Berlin, this was all about Macron’s fear of Le Pen exploiting the unpopularity of enlargement during the next presidential election. But the French argued – as they often have over the past 30 years – that too much enlargement weakens the EU’s cohesion and institutions.

The Germans (and other member-states that take a close interest in the Balkans) were angry: Berlin sees the Balkans as strategically important and worries that if the EU breaks its promises to the countries concerned, Russia, China and Turkey will move into the space that it vacates. France’s response is that those powers are already moving into the countries that are negotiating membership – such as Russia in Serbia and Montenegro.

The French insist that they are not blocking enlargement per se, and that they will agree to the opening of accession talks if the EU reforms the enlargement process. In particular France wants two changes. Accession talks should be ‘progressive’, so that as a country fulfils sets of EU requirements, it should start to obtain some of the benefits of membership – such as access to regional funds, or transport networks, or the single market. Only when the negotiations were complete would the country concerned participate fully in the EU institutions. The second reform would be to make this process reversible: if a country negotiating accession misbehaved, it would be excluded from certain policies and markets. In the long run, Germany, other member-states and the Commission may well accept aspects of this French thinking; but Berlin remains miffed that Macron acted unilaterally over enlargement.

France’s willingness to defy most member-states over North Macedonia and Albania is symptomatic of a broader difference of approach between Paris and Berlin. Having never been great enthusiasts for EU enlargement, senior figures in Paris sometimes regret – in their private comments – the presence of the Central and Eastern European Countries (CEECs) in the EU. And when some of those countries behave in ways that seem incompatible with European values, as has been the case with Poland and Hungary in recent years, it reinforces the feeling in Paris that the EU has enlarged far enough already.

Germany, being in the middle of Europe, has no choice but to think about the CEECs as much as its western neighbours. German officials lament that the French – geographically more distant than themselves – have failed to invest sufficiently in relations with the CEECs. Seen from Berlin, the French alternate between being critical of these countries and ignoring them altogether. A recent CER essay by Zaki Laïdi, ‘Can Europe learn to play power politics?’, illustrates the Germans’ point. In a powerfully-argued and provocative paper on the need for the EU to become more than a soft power, this influential French thinker says very little about the role of the CEECs.

Russia policy is the third example of French unilateralism that irks Berlin. In a speech to French ambassadors in August 2019, Macron said that he wanted to bring Russia in from the cold, for strategic reasons. Europe needed Russia to help tackle problems such as Syria and Islamic terrorism; and if it continued to cold-shoulder Moscow, the Russians could fall irreversibly into China’s orbit. There are plenty of voices in Germany, and elsewhere in the EU, that instinctively favour talking to the Russians. But what annoyed such voices was Macron acting unilaterally rather than with Germany or the EU – especially on an issue that is so important for Germany. One senior foreign policy official in Berlin said that he learned about the French initiative from the Finns who had been told by the Russians. Even Austria, a member-state that is normally sympathetic to Russia, chided France for not acting via the EU. As far as those close to Merkel are concerned, Russia can very easily move towards ending its isolation by helping to broker peace in Ukraine; new initiatives from Macron or anyone else will not alter the fundamental point that Russia needs to show respect for international law.

Germany and many Central and Eastern Europeans worried that Macron might be preparing to push for the lifting of the sanctions that the EU had imposed because of Russian actions in Ukraine. By saying that the EU needed Russia, Macron implied that Russia deserved some sort of reward without having to change its behaviour. And when Macron talked of re-admitting Russia to the G-7 and of designing a new European security architecture, in which Russia could find a place, he was raising Moscow’s expectations. But in fact these worries were over-blown: Macron has not questioned the EU sanctions. He has emphasised that he is not naïve about Russia, and said that it may take a decade before this initiative brings results. Nevertheless the unilateral way that Macron handled the issue eroded trust in the French in Berlin and elsewhere – as some French officials acknowledge.

In defence, the fourth area of disagreement, France and Germany start with diametrically opposed perspectives but sometimes end up working together. France, like the UK, has a strategic culture which is relaxed about the use of force outside Europe. German views on the use of force, however, are constrained by history. Germany’s post-War tradition puts a premium on solving conflict through non-violent methods, and its government cannot deploy force without parliamentary approval. German attitudes have evolved somewhat over the past 20 years, so that German troops have been sent abroad, usually when wearing NATO or EU helmets. But the political class, and especially senior figures in the SPD, remains hostile to the idea of German soldiers getting involved in a shooting war.

Thus when the EU’s role in defence is discussed, Germany often favours tinkering with existing institutions or the creation of new procedures. It likes to support initiatives that all or nearly all member-states will join, such as ‘permanent structured co-operation’ (PESCO, a framework that allows groups of members to pursue defence projects together). France, in contrast, favours schemes that could facilitate Europeans intervening militarily with real force – such as the 14-country European Intervention Initiative, an idea of Macron’s which aims to foster a common strategic culture (and which includes the UK).

Germans are insistent that any deployment of force should be on a multilateral basis, under the aegis of NATO, the EU or the UN. But they reckon that those institutions are mere options for the French, alongside the deployment of force unilaterally or in other small groups. So when Macron said to The Economist in November 2019 that NATO was “brain-dead”, and that he was unsure whether its members would fight to defend each other as the alliance’s Article 5 required them to do, he caused consternation in Berlin (and other capitals). Some officials acknowledged that he had raised important issues, but thought that for a head of state to say such things, rather than a think-tanker, could only aid those who wished NATO ill. The Russians did of course exploit Macron’s words.

France and Germany can come together on defence issues. For example, for many years they failed to agree on a common approach to arms exports, because of Germany’s more restrictive rules. This discord prevented joint Franco-German armaments projects from moving forward, and thwarted some French exports of equipment that included German parts. But in October 2019 the pair agreed on a compromise set of rules.

They also both agree on the slogan of greater European strategic autonomy, but not necessarily on what that should mean in practice. For France it means building up European defence capability so that if one day the US is absent, Europe can act to defend its interests. Germany worries that pursuing that line too boldly could hasten America’s departure.
In November, AKK gave a speech that in some ways leaned to the French view, arguing that Germany should be willing to deploy force in support of its strategic interests. She also called for defence spending to rise from its current level of 1.37 percent of GDP to the NATO target of 2 percent, but only by 2030. Despite AKK’s fine words, however, the reality is that very few German politicians think it worthwhile to spend significantly greater sums on strengthening their country’s military muscle.

Defence will thus remain a source of tension between Germany and France. Just as the CDU’s commitment to the black zero budget rule makes it hard for France to work closely with Germany on eurozone issues, so the SPD’s pacifism will impair French efforts to push Germany towards accepting greater European strategic autonomy in defence. On both issues, the entry of the Greens into government – which could easily happen within the next few years – would move Germany somewhat closer to French thinking. The Greens are more Keynesian than the CDU on economics, and more willing to intervene militarily than the SPD.

The future of Franco-German leadership

The EU can achieve very little unless France and Germany work together. Despite the angst and méfiance that has crept into the relationship of late, each generation of leaders in Paris and Berlin learns this truth.

Macron needs to become a better diplomat. He would stand a greater chance of implementing his ideas if he found the time to consult and convince Germany and others before launching them. He should not undermine NATO’s credibility by publicly questioning the commitment to mutual self-defence that is contained in its Article 5. Nor should he make overtures to Russia unless it shows greater respect for international law. As for enlargement, some of Macron’s ideas make sense, but he should be willing to compromise on what he can get in return for lifting his veto on further accession talks.

Meanwhile the Germans need to be less complacent about some of the threats to the EU and its currency. A continuation of current policies could lead to their weakening, or worse. Germany should accept that in the eurozone the price of leadership and success is some degree of responsibility for the welfare of weaker members. In return the Germans are entitled to expect EU mechanisms that will push ‘problem’ countries to manage their economies better. As for European security, the Germans should be willing to contribute more, rather than free-ride on others.

Much will depend on the leadership of those heading these two countries. Macron and Merkel are still capable of working together effectively, and she is likely to remain in office well into 2021. Potentially, their skill sets can be very complementary: he bringing vision, bold ideas and youthful energy; and she bringing calm, experience and a spirit of compromise.

The challenge of Brexit for European security

One huge challenge for France and Germany is minimising the damage that Brexit could inflict on the EU. Brexit makes Franco-German co-operation even more necessary – but also, in some ways, more difficult. The UK has acted as a kind of safety valve for the Franco-German relationship. When France got fed up with Germany on security issues, it could go and flirt with the UK. And when Germany found France’s reticence towards free trade and EU enlargement a pain, it could talk to the British. Now each has little alternative to the other. Furthermore, Brexit makes other member-states more wary and resentful of Franco-German leadership, since that couple is now more dominant. And that in turn makes it harder for France and Germany to lead the EU, even when they agree.

Concerning the UK’s economic ties to the EU, the Commission will play a leading role in negotiating the future relationship, alongside France and Germany. But when it comes to moderating the harmful strategic consequences of Brexit, Merkel and Macron will be pre-eminent, since they – unlike many other EU leaders – are accustomed to thinking about the bigger picture. They understand why both Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump have been so delighted by Brexit.

The good news for those who hope for a close EU-UK security partnership is that EU thinking evolved during 2019. The Commission’s starting point was that no third country could have too close a relationship with the EU – in foreign or defence policy, or justice and home affairs – because of the risk of setting a precedent. For example, if the UK posted a liaison officer in the EU military staff, Turkey might ask for the same thing. If the UK was allowed to continue to use the European Arrest Warrant, then Iceland and Norway, which had spent many years negotiating their own special (but still inferior) alternative to the warrant, would expect a comparable deal. Or if Britain’s defence firms were allowed to participate in EU-funded defence capability projects, US firms would demand the same status.

Several member-states were unhappy about this focus on legal precedent. They worried that keeping the UK at arm's length could ultimately harm their own citizens’ security – given how much Britain can potentially contribute. During 2019, these member-states pushed for a more flexible approach, and even the French, who had taken a very hard line, started to shift, as did the Commission. The current line in Berlin and Paris is that the EU should create bespoke structures that enable the British to plug into EU machinery, and that these arrangements should not be offered to other third countries. The caveat is that in justice and home affairs, which is about EU law, the UK will have to accept a strong role for the European Court of Justice, as well as EU rules on data privacy.

There is a fair chance that Boris Johnson’s government will ultimately agree to a moderately close security relationship, because of the potential benefits for the UK; very few people voted to leave the EU because they disliked the common foreign and security policy. But there is a risk that if the talks on the future trading relationship break down in acrimony, the atmosphere will be so poisoned that Britain’s leaders will spurn close security ties.

In several areas of security policy, officials may invent procedures that allow the British a voice in EU councils, though not a vote. However, in both Paris and Berlin senior figures think that an additional format needs to be created at a high level, outside the framework of the EU. Macron and Merkel have both spoken of a European Security Council (ESC). For the French, one advantage of this format could be to involve the UK in discussions on the big issues facing Europe, such as Russia, China or the Middle East, and to help prevent it becoming a loose cannon that could slide towards the US. Such meetings would also encourage human contact between British and EU politicians, facilitate common analysis of problems and help to contain disagreements. Merely inviting the UK to occasional meetings of the European Council or the Foreign Affairs Council would not be sufficient, since those two bodies are too large for serious discussion.

In Berlin, politicians such as Heiko Maas, the SPD foreign minister, and Jens Spahn, the CDU health minister, have called for an ESC that would include Britain. But other senior Germans say they would prefer to build on the informal ‘EU3’ meetings of Britain, France and Germany that have often played a substantive role in foreign policy, such as during the Iran nuclear negotiations. A more formal ESC, these Germans say, could rival or damage the EU’s institutions and irritate excluded member-states.

Indeed, working out how an ESC should relate to the EU’s institutions and procedures would be fiendishly complicated. It might meet before gatherings of EU leaders, so that the UK could help to shape but not take decisions. If EU leaders did agree to create an ESC, deciding who should sit on it would be the most difficult issue. The least bad option would probably be to follow the UN Security Council model: the larger member-states would have permanent seats, and the smaller ones would rotate. The EU institutions would need to be represented, to reassure the smaller members who were not on the council.

Many smaller countries are hostile to the concept of an ESC, fearing a big countries’ club that would effectively exclude them. But the right kind of rotational structure might offer some reassurance. And the smaller states would gain little from more frequent meetings of the EU3, from which they are always excluded. In any case, if the larger countries want to meet informally, outside the EU framework, there is nothing to stop them doing so. In the long run even reticent smaller members may come to share the Franco-German view that a new mechanism is needed to plug the British firmly into European security policy.

Charles Grant

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