2. Negotiating the EU’s Future
Nevertheless, France faces several obstacles to its agenda. To begin with, Paris’ allies in Southern Europe are in no position to reshape the European Union. Italy will hold a general election in early 2018, and the vote could bring to power parties more willing to clash than to negotiate with the bloc.
Though Spain has one of the fastest-growing economies on the Continent, the minority government in Madrid is too focused on preserving the country’s territorial integrity to have a strong voice at the EU level. Portugal is too small to influence the bloc’s affairs, despite its decent economic growth rate, while Greece is still under a bailout program.
- What’s more, Germany’s temporary absence from the Continental debate won’t change the strategic priorities of countries in Northern Europe. Member states such as the Netherlands, Austria and Finland are wary of measures that would distribute financial risk across the eurozone and transfer resources from Northern to Southern Europe.
- Like Berlin, the governments of these countries believe risk-sharing measures can be introduced only if the Continent has also devised more efficient methods for monitoring its member states’ fiscal policies. Many Northern European leaders believe the bloc’s fiscal rules are too often bent and that the institutions tasked with enforcing them are too politi (With that in mind, Germany’s former finance minister, Wolfgang Schaeuble, recently proposed turning Europe’s permanent bailout fund into a European Monetary Fund so that technocrats — and not politicians in the European Commission — would oversee members’ fiscal policies.)
- Southern European countries, on the other hand, believe the bloc’s fiscal requirements are arbitrary and unnecessarily rigid and see public spending as a tool to stimulate growth and keep social unrest under control.
Because of these challenges, France will not get everything it wants. Many of its proposals will be watered down or adapted to appease Germany and its northern allies, while others still will be postponed. Regardless, the debate next year to reform Europe could be the closest a discussion of the bloc’s future has gotten to a negotiation between equals since the start of the financial crisis.
Germany and France are already on the same page on some issues, such as proposals to close tax loopholes for internet companies, plans to harmonize the tax systems among member states and measures to increase vetting for non-EU investors purchasing companies in the bloc. Considering their diverging strategic interests, however, it’s unclear how long Berlin and Paris can keep up their alignment.
Unity or Fragmentation?
Beyond their differing views and economic disparity, the growing diversity among the European Union’s members is working against the Franco-German alliance, too. The bloc has become much more complex and interconnected but also much more heterogeneous over the past decade and a half. In turn, the challenges to Continental unity have multiplied. The return of economic growth in the eurozone doesn’t mean the disappearance of risk from the currency area.
Italian banks still have large numbers of nonperforming loans in their balance sheets, and Greece will need help to alleviate its debt burden. As a result, future initiatives to deepen integration in the eurozone could exclude some of its members, focusing instead on a select group of countries.
Outside the eurozone, meanwhile, EU members in Central and Eastern Europe face a dilemma. They must decide whether to deepen their ties to Western Europe at a cost to their national sovereignty or to resist its attempts at centralization and risk isolation.
France already has suggested that it would be willing to lead a coterie of countries toward greater integration while other members stay behind. But Germany wants to keep the European Union as united as possible, even if this comes with compromises and half-measures. As an export-driven economy, Germany can’t afford to endorse measures that could eventually cause the EU single market to fall apart.
Without question, the partnership between Germany and France remains the most important strategic alliance in Europe today. It is also a synthesis of the political and economic disagreements that divide the bloc’s northern and southern members.
There was a time when an understanding between Paris and Berlin would be enough to get things done in the European Union. In the coming years, though, they will deal with issues that go beyond their shared interests and their perennial divides. Franco-German cooperation will continue to be crucial for the future of Europe. Whether it will be enough to keep the Continent united may be another story.
- The publication is not an editorial. It reflects solely the point of view and argumentation of the author. The publication is presented in the presentation. Start in the previous issue. The original is available at :com