Power shift – France loses ground to Germany

The euro crisis shows starkly that power in the European Union has shifted from France to Germany

Published on The Economist, Dec. 9, 2010.

WHEN the financial crisis erupted in September 2008 President Nicolas Sarkozy was quick to seize the European lead. He summoned Britain’s Gordon Brown to emergency talks in Paris. He urged Europeans to stimulate their economies. He taunted Germany’s Angela Merkel for hesitating over a stimulus plan, declaring that “France is working on it; Germany is thinking about it.” The French counted at least as much as the Germans—indeed, they were setting the pace (in part fortuitously, as France held the European Union presidency at the time). 

This year, however, a subtle shift has taken place. The balance of power between the Franco-German pair that have dominated EU policymaking has shifted across the Rhine. The euro-zone debt crisis, during which all eyes have been on Germany, exposes this cruelly. On the fundamental elements—a permanent post-2013 debt-crisis mechanism, a treaty change to enshrine it in European law, tougher rules and sanctions for rule-breakers, no enlargement of the bail-out fund—Mrs Merkel has got what she asked for, while Mr Sarkozy has been stuck on the sidelines … //

… Germany’s economic supremacy coincides with its political coming of age, as the country no longer shies away from fighting for its national interests. The post-war European bargain, under which the Germans “put their economy at Europe’s disposal while France gave them political legitimacy,” as one French official puts it, no longer holds. Add to this a generation of officials and politicians on both sides of the Rhine who neither studied at each other’s universities nor even speak each other’s language and, despite the tight institutional mesh that still ties the two together, there is a sense that the Germans no longer need the French as they once did.

“For France, it is very difficult to accept,” says one French minister. “We have a tendency sometimes to treat Germany as if it should just accept our ideas, because that’s what France does. But that is over.” This means that French officials have to work out new ways of retaining their influence in Europe. One must be to restore credibility over their public finances. Mr Sarkozy knows well that the Germans, as well as the bond markets, were watching his pension reform closely. His reappointment of François Fillon as prime minister was in part intended to show that he takes deficit-reduction seriously.

Another way is for the French to seek out common interests that can engage Germany. On agriculture, for example, Europeans are due to rethink the common agricultural policy after 2013. After months of bilateral discussions, and despite German reticence, the two countries have agreed to state that farming is a “strategic activity” and that Europe “needs a strong CAP”. The French regard this as a coup.

Ms Merkel still needs Mr Sarkozy’s support for any big initiative. He, in turn, has come to value the Franco-German tie. “Three years ago, we considered that the Franco-German relationship wasn’t exclusive, and that we should also look elsewhere,” says Mr Wauquiez. “Now we realise that not only we need it but it’s more important than ever.” The irony is that the French now want the relationship just as its balance tilts against them. (full text).

Comments are closed.