Merkel and Macron betray weakness with cautious Aachen treaty

Rhetoric of deeper ties does not live up to limited results 

Emmanuel Macron (left) originally conceived of the Franco-German agreement with Angela Merkel (right) as building on the Elysée Treaty signed in 1963

Guy Chazan in Berlin and Victor Mallet in Paris JANUARY 21, 2019

When Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron sign a new Franco-German treaty in the historic city of Aachen on Tuesday, there will be much soaring rhetoric about the deepening ties between the two countries.

To critics, though, the Treaty of Aachen is thin gruel. Anyone hoping for a new, tighter alliance between France and Germany, and for signs that the two countries might once again drive European integration, will be disappointed.

In that respect the treaty is richly symbolic of the state of the Merkel-Macron axis. A relationship that once promised a new beginning for Europe has been beset by disappointments, mutual tensions and mismatched expectations.

“There is nothing in the treaty that suggests France and Germany want to open a new chapter in their relationship,” said Josef Janning, senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “It offers no alternative to the status quo.”

Mr Macron originally conceived of the agreement as building on the Elysée Treaty signed in 1963 between Konrad Adenauer and Charles de Gaulle, which for years stood as a symbol of Franco-German reconciliation after nearly a century of devastating wars.

The French president saw it as a way to advance much deeper economic and administrative integration between the neighbours and serve as an example to the rest of the EU.

« Obviously it is just symbolic. But at a time when the whole idea of Europe is increasingly threatened by national egoism and fragmentation, symbols are important. » Claire Demesmay of the German Council on Foreign Relations

Ms Merkel’s initial response when Mr Macron broached the idea in 2017 was positive. But since then, the political environment for both leaders has changed dramatically. Stung by a succession of dismal election results, Ms Merkel stood down as leader of the Christian Democratic Union last year after 18 years in the job. And anti-government protests by the “gilets jaunes” have weakened Mr Macron’s authority at home.

The European context is also less amenable to bold reform initiatives, with populists on the march in Italy, illiberal democracies in Hungary and Poland and EU leaders preparing for the eventuality of a no-deal Brexit.

Since his famous speech at the Sorbonne in 2017 setting out sweeping proposals to reform the EU, Mr Macron has repeatedly had to downgrade his plans. His idea of a eurozone budget  that would give the currency area more financial firepower to deal with crises and of a digital tax on internet companies both met stiff resistance in Berlin.

Against that backdrop, the treaty Paris and Berlin negotiated has ended up being far less ambitious than Mr Macron envisaged. Barbara Kunz, research fellow at Ifri, the French Institute of International Relations, said it was a “lowest common denominator” agreement.

Yet the treaty’s supporters insist it is a big step forward. The two countries say they will work together more closely on foreign and defence policy and create a new “Franco-German defence and security council”. They will commit to closer military co-operation and promise to co-ordinate more closely in the UN, where France will back Germany’s efforts to win a permanent Security Council seat.

Jürgen Hardt, foreign affairs spokesman of Ms Merkel’s CDU/CSU bloc, said the treaty was a “decisive step forward” in defence policy. “We want to ensure that Europe’s voice in the world is heard more clearly,” he said. Aachen would show that the “Franco-German motor is intact and is giving out critical impulses for Europe”.

Isabelle Bourgeois, an expert on Franco-German relations, singled out the new defence council as a potential advance. “You have to go step-by-step,” she said. “France and Germany can develop some areas of co-operation and show other EU members that working together can lead to concrete actions.”

Experts have praised other aspects of the treaty, such as its emphasis on co-operation between regions on either side of the Franco-German frontier.

“We want to facilitate and improve relations between people in the border regions, to enable an exchange and improve mobility,” said Steffen Seibert, Ms Merkel’s spokesman. The idea was to “do everything we can to make life easier for people living in these regions”.

That might seem rather small-bore. But in its modesty, the treaty implicitly acknowledges the constraints stopping Paris and Berlin pursuing anything more ambitious. Both want a common EU policy on asylum and migration, for example, but know it would be resisted by eastern European countries like Hungary. France’s desire for deeper integration of the eurozone would be blocked by fiscally hawkish countries.

“But at least on the issue of closer cross-border co-operation they can act,” said Claire Demesmay of the German Council on Foreign Relations. The idea might seem “niche”, she said, but could end up becoming a “laboratory” for closer EU integration.

The treaty, for example, allows border regions to diverge from national law in the pursuit of joint projects in areas such as infrastructure, energy and health.  France and Germany renew friendship treaty

Yet even that goes too far for some. Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right Rassemblement National, said Aachen amounted to “treachery”. “Macron is selling our country off piece by piece and destroying our sovereignty,” she tweeted.

Her ally, Nicolas Dupont-Aignan of the Eurosceptic party Stand up, France, warned that Aachen would pave the way for “German laws” to be enforced in parts of eastern France close to the German border.

That even such a modest agreement should face such fierce opposition on the right is a sign of the times. But that, according to Ms Demesmay, proves that Aachen is a positive contribution. “Obviously it is just symbolic,” she said. “But at a time when the whole idea of Europe is increasingly threatened by national egoism and fragmentation, symbols are important.”