The German question is back. Except this time it is not rebellious Greeks, Europe-tired Brits or nationalistic Polish, who openly challenge the German dominance in the European Union.
This time it’s a nice, young Frenchman, who committed to the friendship with Germany and is fully on the neo-liberal trip of the Chancellor: Emmanuel Macron, the 8. President of the 5th French Republic, newly raises the old issue of the German role in Europe.
In fact, this time, there are two questions: can Macron turn France into an equal partner for Germany by pushing the neo-liberal reforms?
And will Germany engage in the old Franco German dialectic again and find compromises with Macron, which promote the EU as a whole? The first question is posed especially in Berlin, the second in Paris and Brussels. Both are crucial for the future of Europe.
This is not about reviving the old „Sarkozy Directorate“, a rather poor attempt of Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy to lead the EU through the euro crisis. The Franco German „Motor“ is dead and will not be fired up again.
The model with which Merkel secured her power after Sarkozy’s departure is just as out of date. The Netherlands and Finland served her as a junior partner, together with Britain, she kept France small.
That was no coincidence, nor born out of necessity, as is often claimed in Berlin. France did not „malfunction“ overnight under Sarkozy’s successor François Hollande. The political and economic crisis in Paris was never so great, that Berlin could completely ignore the neighbor.
Merkel and her Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble rather booted France off deliberately, to enforce their course in the EU.
But since Brexit happened, that is no longer that easy. The most important German partner for neo-liberal politics will be lost when the British leave the EU and France begins to regain importance in Europe.
With Macron a personality enters the Elysée Palace, that can no longer be dismissed as a „lame duck“ or a diehard left Socialist. That complicates the situation for Merkel and Schäuble.
The ball is now in their field, the long ago solved „question allemande“ arises newly.
France must come out of the defensive position
THe situation is complicated for Macron, too He must wind his way out of Merkel’s narrow, preemptive embrace, to not end up as another „Puppet“ of the Chancellor. He must win a majority in the National Assembly, to unite the French and to implement his projects into action.
And he needs to find a way out of the defensive on European policy. Under Hollande, Paris had only reacted, but not acted.
That is about to change. Macron resumes old positions of Hollande, which he helepd develop when he was still his Economics Minister. The campaign should start with reform convents in all EU countries. They could fertilize the ongoing debate on the future of the EU and give the citizens a voice.
In a second phase, Macron wants to promote the reform of the euro zone. The Monetary Union will be given a private budget, a separate financial Minister and its own Parliament. He also targets euro bonds, however quite vaguely.
These are no revolutionary demands, on the contrary. Macron refers to old and well-known proposals from the EU institutions from the so-called „Five President report“ on Completing Europe’s Economic and Monetary Union.
This report was drawn up among others by ECB chief Mario Draghi, head of the Commission Jean-Claude Juncker and the former President of the European Parliament Martin Schulz (SPD). The draft should initiate the missing reforms which are necessary to fend off new shocks during the euro crisis.
But Germany said no. Already a year ago, Merkel ensured that the Five President Report, as envisaged, was not fed into the EU legislative process, but disappeared in the recycling bin.
Today, the proposals of Macron are presented in Germany as if they came from a Socialist dream country and were completely unrealistic. The plans would have no majority and could be implemented only with amendments nobody currently wanted, says Berlin defensively.
But all of this is wrong. Behind Macron’s plans stand Brussels. The European Parliament would like to go even further. Since the Brexit, MEPs call for a „restart“ of the EU and of course for a reform of the euro zone. Not Macron is isolated, but Merkel, who barricades herself behind spurious legal arguments.
The second German line of Defense is even more oblique: Macron should finish of all his „Homework“ and introduce more structural reforms, before starting discussions with Merkel. Hence: only a French agenda from 2010 and an almost balanced State budget would be acceptable.
This „argument“ denotes itself. Macron is just the man who stands for the controversial reforms. With the „Loi Macron“, a labour market reform, he caused uproar in France in 2016.
On the other hand, Germany also didn’t do its „Homework“, as the exorbitant, continuously rising export surpluses show. Only just, a new historical record was reported again.
If we wanted to wait until France sorts its budget deficit and Germany reduces its current-account surplus, we can forget about common European policy within the next few years.
The reservations from Berlin should therefore not be taken as a face value. Ultimately Merkel and Schäuble want to defend the EU’s Status Quo for the sake of Germany and to defend the, since the euro crisis considered hostile (Ulrich Beck), „German Europe“.
That this does not only go against the EU politicians in Brussels, but also against the (last) German friend Macron in Paris, doesn’t seem to bother Merkel’s thinkers and echoes.
With a heavy dose of „Merkiavellismus“ (Beck) Macron and Juncker are trying to play France and the EU out against each other.
But if France fails, Europe will fail. This should be clear to all after this presidential election, also in Berlin. The permanent crisis, to which Germany has led the EU, is not over with Macron’s election. On the contrary. Now it has captured the Franco-German relations and threatens to shake the foundations of the European unification.
The German question arises behind the French crisis – again.