60 years of the Elysee Treaty: France-Germany friendship remains crucial to EU’s future

For much of the postwar era, Germany and France have been the dynamos of ever-closer European integration. Yet, 60 years on from the landmark Elysee Treaty, this process is taking place in a vastly changed context.

When the Elysee Treaty, which established a new foundation for Franco-German relations following centuries of rivalry and wars, was signed by President Charles de Gaulle and Chancellor Konrad Adenauer on Jan. 22, 1963, the-then European Economic Community was made up of its six founding members: France, West Germany, Belgium, Italy, Luxembourg and the Netherlands. The EEC’s initial aim was to bring about economic integration among its member states, including a common market and customs union.

At the time, Harold Macmillan was UK prime minister, Nikita Khrushchev was leader of the Soviet Union, John Kennedy was US president and Mao Zedong was the Chinese leader. That same month saw De Gaulle’s vetoing of the UK’s proposed entry into the EEC.

Six decades later, the now-EU has 27 member states; East and West Germany have been unified (1990); the UK has both joined (1973) and left (2020) the European club; and the Soviet Union has disappeared from the geopolitical landscape (although Russia continues to challenge the global order, as shown most recently in Ukraine).

In this transformed world, the Franco-German alliance remains very important in Europe, but faces a new context 60 years on.

European integration continues to be a cherished project of both Berlin and Paris

Andrew Hammond

At the level of bilateral ties, firstly, the relationship between current French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz is mixed. For instance, a joint Franco-German Cabinet meeting in late October was postponed at short notice amid big differences on energy and defense, while a meeting between Macron and Scholz that same month was also overshadowed by tensions.

It is noteworthy here too that, since the political transition in Germany that began with the end of the Angela Merkel era, Macron has sought to balance France’s ties with Berlin with those of other key nations. On Thursday, for instance, he signed a bilateral friendship treaty with Spain.

Moreover, in late 2021, he signed the so-called Quirinal Treaty with Italy. Under this new pact, France and Italy have committed to greater coordination in security, defense, migration, strategic sectors (including 5G and artificial intelligence) and macroeconomics. They will also ensure greater coordination before EU leadership summits to try to agree common positions — a process that has long taken place between France and Germany.

At the broader level, France and Germany are still the most powerful states in the EU, with the largest economies in the eurozone. However, the relative balance of power has shifted across the continent in the last 60 years, including with the two-decades-long process whereby Eastern and Central European states have become more important in the EU, in part because of their economic convergence with the West. Moreover, these states are becoming increasingly skillful at leveraging their power in Brussels, including through forums like the Visegrad Group (made up of Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia) and the Bucharest Nine (Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania and Slovakia).

In this new, increasingly multipolar EU, Macron and Scholz will not just be patching up their personal relationship. As well as sending a message of reconciliation regarding bilateral relations, the Elysee Treaty also laid the groundwork for close cooperation in supporting European integration, which continues to be a cherished project of both Berlin and Paris.

Merkel and Macron, despite not seeing eye to eye on every issue, ere generally a formidable duo, plotting the future of Europe and its role in the world. Key achievements included persuading squabbling fellow EU members to agree to give the bloc, for the first time in its history, debt-raising powers to finance a €750 billion ($811 billion) post-coronavirus recovery plan, potentially paving the way for greater future supranational powers of taxation and a more federalized continent.

The challenge for Macron and Scholz is that, reflecting the new centers of power in the EU, there are a multitude of views on the future of the bloc. Sunday’s celebration of the 60th anniversary of the Elysee Treaty therefore represents an opportunity for Paris and Berlin to turbocharge the debate.

A stronger Macron-Scholz relationship could help steer the EU toward a pathway of deepening cooperation over the coming years, from energy to defense, with states sharing more power and decisions agreed faster and enforced more quickly. Yet, even after the Ukraine war ultimately ends, there is no guarantee of that.

While the direction of the EU is still uncertain, what is clear is that Berlin and Paris will — 60 years after the signing of the Elysee Treaty — have a significant bearing on events. Both Macron and Scholz know that the remainder of their terms could have an outsized impact on defining the economic and political character of the bloc not just in the rest of 2020s, but possibly even well beyond.

  • Andrew Hammond 

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