The historic reconciliation
For 60 years plus Europe’s peace has been underwritten by a historic reconciliation between France and Germany, who went to war three times in the preceding 100 years. The multilateral framework was provided by the early institutions of European integration, starting with the Coal and Steel Community in 1951 and copper-fastened by agreement on the European Economic Community in 1957. But the bilateral arrangements between these two leading states was not put in place until the Elysée Treaty of 1963, whose 50th anniversary is deservedly celebrated today.
Signed by Charles de Gaulle and Konrad Adenauer, it provided for systematic ministerial consultation at the top end of politics and an ambitious programme of youth and city exchange from the bottom up – so far involving eight million people in some 300,000 activities. This makes the Franco-German relationship the most institutionalised and politically intertwined in world politics. That it is a relationship of difference adds to its strength. When these powerful states can find a compromise it is more likely this will be agreed by other EU member states.
Time and again this pattern has been repeated in the decades since, particularly in economics and the constitutional design of European integration. Successive enlargements, creation of the Common Agricultural Policy, the single market, the euro and most recent EU treaties reflect such Franco-German agreements between their national leaders. So do current efforts to repair and develop the euro.
Those admittedly indispensable efforts also illustrate the imbalances and shortcomings of the relationship, for themselves and EU partners. Originally German economic strength was counterbalanced by France’s political presence. That changed after German unification and is no longer as symmetrical as before – to Germany’s advantage. Nor does their bilateral bargaining spin off as functionally for other EU states, especially smaller ones like Ireland, since it can reduce their influence on the outcomes. They need to insist that existing community procedures be restored and democratic legitimacy be enhanced.
It is striking to remember that within a month of its original signature de Gaulle vetoed the British (and Irish) EEC applications, while Adenauer endorsed Nato’s multilateral nuclear force without any mutual consultations. Tomorrow, David Cameron will speak on Britain’s future relations with the EU and the deepening euro zone in what many see as an act of gradual UK disengagement. De Gaulle would not have been surprised, but Adenauer’s successor Angela Merkel does not want to see that happen, fearing a British departure would weaken the EU’s liberal credentials.