Joschka Fischer

Germany’s foreign minister and vice chancellor from 1998 to 2005. He was a leader of the German Green Party for almost 20 years.

When France and Germany Squabble, Putin Rejoices

Le 26 mars 2024 à 12h25

Modifié 26 mars 2024 à 12h25

BERLIN – The Franco-German relationship has always been complicated and never free of conflict or tension. Everyone understands that cooperation between these two key European Union countries is necessary and in the interest of the entire bloc. Nonetheless, they have never fully overcome their current – and historic – rivalry.

One reason is that France and Germany are equally strong, albeit in different dimensions. Over the past seven decades of gradual European unification, Germany – though divided between 1945 and 1990 – was economically powerful but diplomatically diffident. France, by contrast, boasted military and cultural strengths and an unbroken tradition as a European power. Following Germany’s defeat in World War II, Charles de Gaulle made a point of fully asserting France’s renewed confidence.

Germany was the exact opposite. At the end of WWII, it was a failed power with a reputation for triggering European disasters. The German state and culture had come to be defined by the complete moral bankruptcy of the Hitler era. The Nazis had dragged Germany into a state of barbarism, deploying modern technologies and pseudoscientific theories to commit genocide against European Jews, Roma, and others, and to lay waste to large swaths of the European continent. In short, the Germans had Hitler, who had led them into the abyss, leaving a lasting legacy of shame, whereas the French had de Gaulle, the savior of the nation in its darkest hour.

Of course, both countries also shared a much older enmity. By the time of WWII, the two powers had been warring for centuries (not least because Germany contributed to the rise of Protestantism, whereas France remained a bastion of Catholicism). France has a long tradition as a nation-state, while the first political unification of Germany happened very late, in 1871. All that history would have to be overcome if a post-Nazi Germany was to be successfully integrated into a new European order. If there was any chance of renewed Franco-German hostilities, a lasting peace would remain out of reach.

Fortunately, Europe managed to establish a new security order, with the decisive assistance of the United States, starting with the founding of NATO in 1949, followed by the formation of the European Coal and Steel Community in 1951. That led to the creation of the European Economic Community in 1957, and then to German reunification in 1990. German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and French President François Mitterrand played leading roles in drafting the Maastricht Treaty, which formally established the EU when it came into force in 1993.

Today, Germany and France remain the two largest, most powerful EU member states, in terms of both population and the size of their economies. France also is a nuclear power and a permanent (veto-wielding) member of the United Nations Security Council. When France and Germany are aligned, they can generally bring the rest of Europe along with them.

Such unity and resolve have become more important than ever since Russian President Vladimir Putin launched his unprovoked war of aggression against Ukraine. Add in the possibility of former US President Donald Trump returning to the White House, and the imperative to bolster Europe’s defenses becomes even more urgent.

To that end, one of the most immediate priorities is to preserve Ukraine’s independence and sovereignty. That objective must be central to French and German leaders’ strategic vision. But the leaders of Europe’s two most important countries have instead been publicly butting heads and contradicting each other.

Earlier this month, French President Emmanuel Macron said he would not rule out sending troops to Ukraine, prompting a direct rebuke from German Chancellor Olaf Scholz. Now, the two leaders, along with Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk, are scrambling to present a united front once again. Putin must be smirking gleefully over the self-inflicted wound.

Petty debates about who is prettier, stronger, or more in charge are the last thing Europe needs. We are dealing with a war of conquest that has now entered its third year. Russia wants to erase its neighbor from the map. This is not only about Ukraine’s freedom. It is about the entire European continent.

The French and German leaders should set some new ground rules. Any disputes between them must be settled behind closed doors, and no one should issue any public statements until everyone is on the same page. Contradicting pronouncements by major EU leaders are music to Putin’s ears.

These are strange times. Should Putin succeed in his war, he will surely continue westward. And if Europe is unlucky, it could wake up in November to another looming Trump presidency. We would be stuck between a warring, imperial Russia and an isolationist America. If France and Germany are still openly quarreling, a perilous situation could rapidly become much worse.

© Project Syndicate 1995–2024

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