As early as 1949, Charles de Gaulle orated: “Europe shall not come into being, unless there is a direct agreement between the Germanic and Gallic peoples.” That obiter dictum spawned a slew of metaphors: France and Germany as “tandem,” “couple” or “engine” of Europe. To squeeze the last ounce out of these parallels, we should note that this “engine” never ran on all cylinders, starting to stutter from day one.
Recall the fabled Friendship Treaty of 1963. Hoping to harness Germany as a force multiplier in order to make France great again, De Gaulle soon realized that Bonn was not going to do France’s bidding. With the brief exception of the immediate postwar period, Germany was always the stronger partner in this tandem, given its population and economic size. Accordingly, Germany did not submit to its neighbor across the Rhine. The lever De Gaulle hoped to grasp for the sake of French grandeur forever slipped out of French hands. So De Gaulle mused only a few months after the 1963 marriage vows: “Treaties are like girls and roses; they last while they last.” Not very long, in other words.
This set the pattern some 50 years ago, and it explains why the twain never met, no matter how grandiose the visions French and German leaders batted back and forth across the Rhine—all the way to Emmanuel Macron’s recent attempt to jumpstart the “engine” for the umpteenth time. In a letter to Europe’s citizens published in a dozen European papers, the French President proclaimed yet another “New Beginning” for the European Union.
There is a lot of unexceptionable boilerplate in Macron’s appeal. Start with a whiff of European nationalism, hence the appeal to Europe’s “self-assertion” in a world of “aggressive great powers,” by which he presumably means the United States, Russia and China. Continue with helping Africa, saving the climate, equal pay for equal work, better border protection. Who would want to rail against Macron’s new trinity—“freedom, protection, progress?”
Anybody can sign on to such an agenda. So what is the problem that triggered a sharp response from Berlin, as articulated by Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer (“AKK,” as she is known by her initials)? She was hand-picked by Angela Merkel as chairperson of the ruling Christian Democratic Party, and she is first in line for the chancellorship once Merkel steps down. So remember that unwieldy name.
Softly-softly, Macron had done the traditional French thing, laying out a program that would have pleased Louis XIV, the Sun King, who ruled France from 1643 to 1715. It is statist, protectionist, redistributionist and top-down with a slew of yet more centralist European institutions. The market is “useful,” Macron averred, but “it must not ignore the need for protective borders.” This is code for managed trade joined to the preference for European suppliers in public procurement competitions. Corporate taxes must be set European-wide so as to nix a race the bottom. Add minimum wages from Portugal to Poland.
This reflects a time-honored French tradition, but runs straight into the classic German dispensation. For AKK, the generation of wealth comes first, “redistribution” later. That set the tone. Then she launched into a number of no-nos, no matter how dear they are to Macron’s heart: “European centralism, and statism, the Europeanization of national debts and social support systems, and minimum wages.” All these, according to AKK, “would be the wrong way.”
Nor would a “European superstate” help. European institutions are good, but cooperation among national governments is better, according to AKK. The magic German code word here is “subsidiarity”—let local and regional institutions decide rather than Brussels. Austria’s chancellor Sebastian Kurz put it tout court in a separate response to Macron: “Subsidiarity means doing less more efficiently.”
Finally, another blow to the European orthodoxy: “A new beginning for Europe,” AKK lectured, “will not work without its nation-states. These underwrite democratic legitimacy and national identification.” The last leader to speak thus was Charles de Gaulle preaching a “Europe of the Fatherlands.”
At the core of it all are two very different national histories. Emerging from centuries of absolutist rule, the French are wedded to the all-providing state, distrusting the market and preferring top-down rule. German memories go back to the Holy Roman Empire where power was diffused among a plethora of kingdoms, duchies and statelets.
Under the Nazis, they experienced the deadly grip of the Behemoth state. Naturally, they are attached to local power and states’ rights as distributed among the 16 Länder of the Federal Republic. And they certainly don’t want Macron’s hands in the till, given the classic French interest in spreading the wealth from uber-rich Germany to “Club Med,” the southern tier of the European Union.
So no grand dessein for Europe. Indeed, the European Union will do well if it lassoes the centrifugal forces cutting across the Continent. How shall we count the ways? Brexit nationalist authoritarianism in Eastern Europe, Italy tottering on the brink of bankruptcy, a bizarre government in Rome uniting left- and right-wing demagogues, anti-European populists ensconced in almost every parliament. The good news? Europe has suffered many such blows in the past, and yet it did expand from the original Six to 28. There is no chance that others will follow Britain into not-so-splendid isolation.