Aachen accord offers no big advance to EU’s indispensable friendship
The Editorial Board – 21/01/2019
Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel meet on Tuesday to sign a new Franco-German treaty, the occasion will be rich in symbolism but light on substance. Fifty-six years to the day after Charles de Gaulle and Konrad Adenauer signed a treaty of friendship and reconciliation between their two nations at the Elysée Palace, today’s French and German leaders will appear in the German town of Aachen to endorse a fresh bilateral accord.
Once the seat of Charlemagne, Aachen hosts an annual prize in the Holy Roman Emperor’s name for services to European unification, an honour previously bestowed on both Ms Merkel and Mr Macron. Although intended to take Franco-German amity, upon which the EU is built, to a higher level, their new treaty makes only a modest advance in the cause of integration.
Compared with the 1963 text that instigated an entirely new framework for political and cultural exchange between two perennial antagonists, the Aachen treaty is largely an update that codifies habits of co-operation that have become routine over the decades. There are some innovations. Frontier regions will be able to derogate from national law to facilitate cross-border infrastructure or environmental projects. The two countries will strive to create a Franco-German economic zone with harmonised corporate law regimes. There will be deeper collaboration on research, particularly into artificial intelligence, and more cultural exchanges.
A significant part of Tuesday’s treaty relates to defence. It repeats mutual security clauses contained in the Nato and EU treaties. Paris hopes this could make it easier for Berlin to come to its aid in the event of a terrorist attack, or perhaps as part of a wider counter-terrorist strategy, as in the Sahel, for example. But French hopes for a single policy on exports of Franco-German defence equipment have yielded a mere statement of intent. All in all, this pact lacks the operational detail of France’s Lancaster House defence treaty with Britain, a sign of continued German reticence.
Indeed, a lack of German ambition is clear throughout. There is barely a mention of the euro beyond the assertion that the two countries “are strengthening and deepening monetary union”. But the completion of banking union and the creation of a eurozone budget to help members cushion shocks were the centrepieces of Mr Macron’s ambitious EU reform agenda set out in detail in a landmark speech to the Sorbonne in September 2017. Ms Merkel was too busy trying to form a coalition — and then trying to keep it together — to give his speech the substantive response it deserved.
Anti-government protests have, meanwhile, forced Mr Macron to refocus his energies on defusing domestic anger. Tax and spending concessions have put France in breach of the EU’s deficit rules, a yardstick of budgetary discipline and commitment to reform in German eyes.
Mr Macron has probably invested too much in Berlin and not enough in wooing other capitals, whether the liberal but fiscally hawkish north or the pro-European south. Ideological fractures with nationalist counterparts in Rome and Budapest have turned unduly rancorous. Franco-German unity is no longer sufficient to push forward a diverse and increasingly disorderly EU, but it is still necessary.
The Elysée treaty created mechanisms for collaboration between the governments and peoples of France and Germany that have outlasted their political leaders. Ms Merkel and Mr Macron are right to reaffirm the importance of the relationship, even if some of the joy has gone.