Now that's what I call a special relationship: why the alliance between France and Germany is strong

The two nations have long disagreed over almost everything about Europe. Yet still British attempts to divide them cannot succeed

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A day later than originally pencilled in, on Wednesday David Cameron will deliver his agonisingly trailed speech on the EU and Britain’s future relationship with that institution. Apparently, the Prime Minister’s office had at first selected January 22nd as delivery date. But then there was a minor diplomatic explosion in Berlin.

German officials protested that this was the 50th anniversary of the Elysée Treaty, signed by Konrad Adenauer and Charles de Gaulle: it forms the bedrock of the strategic alliance between two nations which had fought three wars against each other over the preceding 100 years. Chief among the commitments made on 22 January 1963 was this: “The two governments will consult each other, prior to any decision, on all important questions of foreign policy, and in the first place on questions of common interest, with a view to arriving, insofar as possible, at a similar position.”

It has stood the test of time and today in Berlin there will be a commemorative ceremony; there will also be an “extraordinary meeting” of the French-German Council of Ministers and a joint session of both national parliaments. No wonder Chancellor Merkel’s office – allegedly – blew a fuse when informed by No 10 that this would be the day on which the Prime Minister would set out what the future of the European Union – and Britain’s place within it – should be.

Intrusion

Berlin’s ire was in part down to the suspicion that David Cameron was deliberately trying to steal the limelight from the Franco-German celebrations. But I suspect the truth would be even more irritating to them: Downing Street didn’t recognise the full significance of the date.

That’s odd, because British foreign policy in Europe has long been marked by a desire to intrude upon, if not break down, the Franco-German duumvirate which still represents 36 per cent of the EU’s budget and 31 per cent of its voting rights. When those two nations agree on something within the councils of the EU, it happens: and if they agree on whatever is to be done tète-à-tète before any plenary meeting of the EU’s heads of government (as has been almost invariably the case) then the UK’s influence is, with equal invariability, attenuated.

This, I’m afraid, will be the likely outcome in the debate which Cameron will urge upon the EU when he speaks tomorrow. Intuitively, German politicians are not opposed to the British demands for less regulation, such as that involving the Working Time Directive. Yet Berlin would, in the final resort, back French resistance to “les Anglos” in this sphere, simply because the idea of unity between it and Paris – which alliance it still views as the beating heart at the centre of the EU – is more important than any other single issue.

There is something to be said for the countervailing argument: that as German war-guilt is eroded by the passage of time, and as its own relative economic strength vis-à-vis France grows with seeming inexorability, Berlin will feel decreasingly inclined to allow Paris diplomatic ascendancy. There is no doubt that the relationship between Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Francois Hollande is scarcely above freezing point – not helped by the way the German leader had quite openly campaigned for President Sarkozy in the French general election.

In an article entitled “Is the Franco-German Axis Kaput?”, the German news magazine Spiegel observed that the two leaders “feign harmony in public, but in reality Merkel and Hollande are living in separate universes. Their views of the world couldn’t be more different.” Echoing this, Le Monde said that Tuesday’s celebration of the Elysée Treaty anniversary would be a “festival of hypocrisy”, given the abysmal personal relationship between the socialist anti-American Hollande and the centre-right Merkel, who sees Russia and not the US as Europe’s antithesis.

Yet it would be extraordinarily superficial to postulate a collapse of the Franco-German alliance simply because of the personal differences between these two leaders; in fact France and Germany, regardless of whether their leaders of the day are of the same political hue, have always had a distinctly different approach to the idea of Europe and of the nation state within it.

France has followed General de Gaulle’s idea of a “Europe des patries”, whereas German politicians genuinely do want to move to a federal European state. The French have always had a visceral distrust of markets; the Germans have had an equally intuitive faith in the idea of free and open trade, both internally and externally. The Germans believe in the idea of an independent central bank; the French think that control over money should firmly be in the hands of politicians.

As a former secretary general of the French foreign ministry told the Financial Times this week: “The constraint on the Franco-German relationship is that we are different on everything – our institutions, our history, our culture – and we don’t always understand each other. Yet, we have to agree to make Europe work. So it always requires huge efforts to achieve compromises.”

Making a point

One historical fact they have in common – the most important of all historical facts – is that in the last century these neighbours slaughtered millions of each other. In total, three million French and Germans were killed in the two world wars, with a further 8.4 million wounded. The second of those tidal waves of blood is within the personal memories of many of today’s German and French grandparents. This only emphasises more the momentous nature of the agreement signed back in 1963. From the perspective of a younger person today, the idea seems preposterous that without the institutions of the EU there might be war again in Europe. I can’t see it, myself. It was Nato, not an EU army that held the line; that legacy is the presence (still) of 20,000 British troops on German soil.

Yet when Angela Merkel 15 months ago felt the very existence of the euro to be under threat, she declared it could not be allowed to fail because “nobody should believe that another half century of peace in Europe is a given — it’s not. So I say again: if the euro collapses, Europe collapses. That can’t happen.” The fact that Britain is outside the euro is only good news for the people of this country: but it also makes it still more far-fetched that Cameron can succeed in making the Franco-German alliance move his way.

By way of illustration, here is a diplomatic tidbit. Last week, the Foreign Office invited representatives from the embassies of the 26 other EU member states for a meeting about what Britain might propose for the future of the Union, welcoming contributions to the discussion from all our partners. Only two countries chose not to send anyone to the meeting: France and Germany. A point, I think, was being made.

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