When it comes to symbolism and lofty statements, Franco-German summits have decades of experience to build upon. Back in January of 1963, the two countries’ then-leaders signed the Élysée Treaty, which ended centuries of hostility and sealed a new partnership between Germany and France.
And so, on the 56th anniversary of the historic accord on Tuesday, the current leaders of both countries met and signed an upgraded version of the treaty in a bid to deepen their long-lasting friendship. Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Emmanuel Macron chose the backdrop of Aachen, a border town which was once the capital of a mighty empire spanning both nations.
“We want the responsibility of Germany and France in the EU to be founded anew and the direction of German-French cooperation to be redefined,” Merkel said in her address in Aachen’s Gothic city hall prior to signing the treaty.
The chancellor raised eyebrows for being more impassioned than usual in her speech — aware, maybe, that time is running out for her to work on her historical legacy. “We’ll have to fill this treaty with life day after day in the spirit of Europe,” she said.
Macron tapped into the French knack for using literary classics to add solemnity. “When my heart looks for a French word and does not find it, I sometimes go searching for it in the German language,” he said, quoting Madame de Staël, a Parisian author from the Napoleon era and a keen Germanophile.
But for all the feel-good soundbites, few besides Merkel and Macron’s political allies were impressed by the detail of the document that was being signed. Consisting of 28 articles, the 16-page agreement — just 13-pages long in French — is intended to complement the previous Franco-German pact.
The idea of an Élysée Treaty 2.0 is mostly Macron’s. In a landmark speech in late 2017, the newly elected French head of state called for a “renewal” of the European Union to roll back a tide of populism that was undermining the bloc. As a traditional engine of the EU, the Franco-German tandem would have to lead by example. Then, while celebrating the 55th anniversary of the French-German accord a year ago in Berlin, Macron and Merkel promised it would get an upgrade.
But while the French president was itching to strengthen the struggling EU, the German chancellor was busy patching together a government coalition after a bruising election. It eventually took her seven months to get one, at the cost of a lot of energy, and draining Berlin of any willingness to compromise with Paris.
Aachen won’t save Europe
The resulting treaty falls far short of Macron’s initial ambitions. Watered down by German opposition to France’s bolder proposals for the EU and the 19-country euro zone, the new pact broadly sticks to bringing current policies to a “deeper” level and to relaunching existing bilateral projects. “The two countries consult one another regularly at every level before important European events,” Article 2 says, which is exactly what Berlin and Paris do before every EU summit. And the Aachen Treaty also restates mutual defense obligations both countries are bound to as NATO members.
So even before Merkel welcomed Macron in Aachen this morning, there were voices lamenting the shortcomings of the new agreement. “Compared to the resolution adopted by the parliaments of the two countries in January 2018, this treaty has been weakened. It’s not ambitious,” said Franziska Brantner, a Green lawmaker in the Bundestag and a member of a French-German parliamentary committee.
“The Aachen Treaty alone won’t save Europe,” said former Social Democrat leader Martin Schulz, also once a longtime lawmaker in the EU parliament as well as its chairman. “Emmanuel Macron has made many offers to us Germans,” he added, urging Berlin to do more for Paris and have more ambition for Europe.
But the treaty does break new ground, in particular in the area of defense. It calls for the creation of a binational defense council and more coordinated military initiatives, which are a change in the German approach. The pact also calls for increased economic cooperation and gives border regions special status.
These rather timid concessions were enough for rightwing populists in both countries to oppose the treaty, with France’s Marine Le Pen calling it a sellout of Alsace to Germany while the Alternative for Germany accused Macron of trying to “renew his country with German money.”
As is often the case with French-German cooperation, however, tangible progress is more likely to be achieved behind the scenes than solely thanks to the solemnity of a new pact. In her address in Aachen, Chancellor Merkel committed to combating political “inertia” and the habit of postponing decisions.
Yet, considering how much of this is due to her own political allies and how little authority she still has over her party — not to mention that this is Merkel's own brand of doing politics — the chancellor is bound to face an uphill battle to make good on that promise.
Jean-Michel Hauteville is an editor with Handelsblatt Global in Berlin. To reach the author: [email protected].