Europe – awake at last?
Joséphine Staron argues for a renewed German-Franco alliance to strengthen Europe on the international stage.
Too little, too late?
The Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, marks a turning point in the political strategies of the member states of the European Union. They now seem to be aware of the fragility of a lasting peace, including in Europe. But many questions arise today: how to preserve the sovereignty of European states in an unstable geopolitical context, when the institutions of multilateralism are being called into question, when tensions between powers are increasingly palpable, when wars are reappearing on our doorstep, and when the dangers of economic disengagement are becoming increasingly apparent? In the end, it is the place of Europeans in the new world order that is at stake.
Due to the rapid and brutal changes in the international context, from the pandemic, the war in Ukraine and the accompanying energy crisis, to the new partition of the world into antagonistic blocks, it seems that Europeans are finally ready to elaborate a strategy of influence adapted to the challenges of the century, driven by a search for strategic autonomy in key areas: industry, digital, defense, energy, etc.
One question remains: is it too late?
To meet this historic challenge, the geopolitical aspirations of the member states must be more closely aligned, starting with France and Germany, which have played a driving role in European construction since its inception.
I. The war in Ukraine: towards a geopolitical Europe
Although most European states had not anticipated the invasion of Ukraine, they nevertheless reacted very quickly by adopting unprecedented common positions to condemn the war and define sanctions against Russia. In addition, strategic decisions were taken to cut off economic dependence on Russia, despite the major economic consequences that it implied, particularly in the field of energy (in 2019, the EU imported about 40% of its gas from Russia).
However, European solidarity has worked, and the member states have given priority to political choices over economic and commercial considerations, which has not happened often since the beginning of the European project. But the European economic and social model has been greatly affected by the war in Ukraine and the EU’s political choices.
One might have thought that European public opinion would stop supporting the strategic shift undertaken by European States. But this has not been the case. Indeed, in a survey conducted by Kantar Public at the end of 2022, European citizens say they are satisfied with the decisions taken to support Ukraine, whether they are national or European: for instance, 85% of Poles approve of European choices, 78% of French and 73% of Germans.
Europeans also support increases in state military spending. In Germany, the rate of support has increased by 30 percentage points in one year, reaching a total of 69% by the end of 2022. This leap is also observed in Poland and France, with a rise from 34% to 59% and from 33% to 45% , respectively
Thus, the war in Ukraine, and the pandemic before it, have brought about a historic awareness: Europe can no longer remain a geopolitical dwarf, it must invest in its strategic autonomy, and provide itself with the means to effectively protect its population. The French and Germans now seem to share this vision of Europe.
II. Europe facing a reconfiguring world order
This awareness is even more important because the war in Ukraine has accelerated the reconfiguration of the world order in which the West is losing its influence.
States that claim to be non-aligned with the Western position on the condemnation of the invasion of Ukraine and the application of sanctions represent a majority in the UN General Assembly. The Global South cultivates its non-alignment by forming partnerships with the West as well as with China, Russia, or India.
Regional powers such as Turkey and China are exerting increasing influence on the international scene and are even imposing themselves as mediators in the war in Ukraine.
Another example is the BRICS coalition (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa), which is attracting more and more candidates (in 2023, 19 have applied for membership), and their GDP now exceeds that of the G7 (France, United States, United Kingdom, Germany, Japan, Italy, Canada).
Finally, the weight of authoritarian or illiberal regimes is increasing, isolating Western democracies which are weakened in this accelerating international competition. A real race for innovation and reindustrialization is underway and Europeans seem to be lagging behind, especially in strategically important areas, such as armaments, space, cyber, artificial intelligence, etc. The protectionist economic and trade policy of the United States is also a real challenge for Europeans. Adopted in 2022, the „Inflation Reduction Act“, a $430 billion legislative package, aims to develop „made in USA“ products.
How can we face these seemingly dizzying challenges? How can Europe protect its commercial, industrial, economic, and social model? The solutions can be found in the convergence and solidarity between Europeans, first and foremost between France and Germany, the two major driving forces behind European integration.
III. A Zeitenwende in the Franco-German alliance
Historically, France and Germany did not share the same geopolitical aspirations, either for themselves or for the EU: France projects itself internationally through its seat in the United Nations Security Council, its nuclear capacity, and its external military operations; whereas Germany adopts a more neutralist, less interventionist posture, and relies on its economy and trade as its main vector of influence.
There has been a gradual alignment of French and German positions on trade policy with China and reciprocity in trade agreements.
These ontological differences have long prevented them from sharing a common vision of European integration, with Germany focusing more on an economic and cultural vision, while France tended to lean towards a political Europe. But today, it seems that new convergences are possible if they are driven by a clear political will on both sides.
In its National Strategic Review of 2022, France believes that Europe must carry out „a Copernican revolution in the way we conceive conflicts, in our geopolitics and in the revolutions that have accelerated greatly over the last five years in terms of technology and that will continue to do so”. France thus wishes to make the EU a real tool of political and economic influence on the international scene.
On the German side, Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s speech on February 27, 2022 in front of the Bundestag, three days after the Russian invasion, testifies to an unprecedented awareness of a change of era. This is the famous „Zeitenwende“ that marks the strategic turn taken by Germany in recent months. The country, it seems, is moving beyond the doctrine of „Wandel durch Handel“ („change through trade“) that has framed its geopolitical action for decades. This shift even goes back to 2020, when Germany supported France in its proposal to take out a joint loan on behalf of the EU to finance the European recovery plan, or when it accepted the suspension of the Stability and Growth Pact.
The Germans and the French are now in agreement on many points. There has been a gradual alignment of French and German positions on trade policy with China and reciprocity in trade agreements.
Furthermore, on digital sovereignty, they both defend a more protective EU legislation : after promoting and implementing the GDPR – one of the most protective law regarding personal date –, France and Germany are now defending the new AI act presented by the Commission in 2023. If approved in June by the MEP’s, this act will be the first worldwide to regulate the use and development of AI.
On defense issues, new synergies are also emerging, particularly regarding investment in the arms industry. France has announced a budget of 413 billion euros in spending over seven years, an increase of 200 billion. In Germany, an additional investment of 100 billion euros in the Bundeswehr has been approved.
However, countries still need to be aligned on the strengthening of a European defense industrial base. It is essential to ensure the future of European autonomy and sovereignty in defense and security. The main issue being the interoperability of European armed forces in case of conflict. But we have reasons to be hopeful since the Future Combat Air System has finally been launched, despite the difficulties it was facing, both from industrial companies involved, and the lack of political will to follow up on that project.
Finally, the political rapprochement between the two countries was made official on May 10, 2023, when the German Federal Minister of Foreign Affairs, Annalena BAERBOCK, was invited to participate in the meeting of the French Council of Ministers alongside the Minister of Europe and Foreign Affairs, Catherine COLONNA. A declaration was issued in which they affirmed their common will to work for European sovereignty, in the service of the same ambition of ecological and digital transformation for a more autonomous and resilient Europe.
While there is still much to be done to converge the political strategies of France and Germany, particularly in the areas of European defense, industry, space, immigration and energy, the context today is favorable for deepening convergence. The European industrial plan presented by Commissioner Thierry Breton in response to the IRA has met with the support of the Member States, even though it defends a more protective vision of the European economy.
European regulations on digital technology are also very well received by France and Germany, which see them as vectors of normative influence and economic competitiveness. Although there is still a long way to go, Europe is finally beginning to equip itself with the necessary tools to fully participate in this fierce international competition and in the race for innovation.
However, the delay accumulated by Europeans in areas of strategic interest, particularly related to new technologies or cutting-edge innovations (eg. semi-conductors), will not be caught up easily. To meet the new challenges, European States will need more alignment of their positions than ever. Otherwise, in this international competition race for innovation and reindustrialization, there is a great risk of aggravating internal competition between Member States.
The relationship between France and Germany, as one of the top drivers of the European integration, must then be one of mutual trust and solidarity: they must agree on the economic, industrial and commercial fields they wish to develop, not in a logic of competition, but in the name of the European strategic autonomy they are now seeking.