Stronger together? Perspectives for closer German-French foreign policy cooperation in the context o


In 1965, assessing the implications of the Elysée Treaty in an article in Foreign Affairs, the German-French intellectual Alfred Grosser concluded that “French and Germans, though closely united, […] continue to have different points of view on some central questions. Between France and the Federal Republic a marriage has been performed. Divorce is highly improbable, but the spouses do not belong to the same denomination” (Grosser, 1965). The article addressed the fundamental conflict between De Gaulle’s vision of channelling the gravitational forces of West-Germany’s re-emergence into a more independent common European foreign policy and Germany’s unwillingness to sacrifice the primacy of its transatlantic relationship. Ultimately, De Gaulle’s idea of Europe as a strategically autonomous ‘third power’ next to the United States and the Soviet Union remained non-reconcilable with West Germany’s firm bond to the United States as the guarantor of its security and economic prosperity (Delcour, 2010). Indeed, Grosser asserted that “the great industrial power which is the Federal Republic has no desire whatsoever to be a great political power. In Brazil, India or elsewhere, German capital and German steel mills have no political purpose” (Grosser, 1965). Fifty years have passed, and yet the essence of this observation from a bygone era is considered by many to still hold true. Then as now, the issue of different denominations remains at the core of the challenge to construct a common Franco-German line at the core of EU foreign policy.

One central ‘denomination’ difference results from the asymmetry of foreign policy tools and cultures in both countries. France has a long tradition of being an independent first-rank global actor. The country’s P5-membership in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), its nuclear power status and its sizeable and experienced military have allowed it to conduct relatively independent foreign policy. However, like the United Kingdom, France lacks sufficient global economic cloud and momentum to match the geo-political abilities of the US, China and also Russia, whose nuclear and military capabilities could be considered as compensating its economic weakness.

Germany, on the other hand, has a substantially larger and more dynamic economy than France, however lacks the permanent global presence, policy tools and geo-political culture to rise to the role of an independent global foreign policy actor. Indeed, the new Foreign Minister Maas recently re-emphasised that at the heart of German interests lies the protection of multilateral institutions to which Germany has trusted its security and trade interests. Tools of German foreign policy are therefore multilateral in nature, including diplomatic means, economic sanctions, and – if no other options remain – military engagements as part of UN-sanctioned missions (Bundesregierung, 2018b). In sharp contrast, President Macron asserts that “France must be a strong and independent European power” and that the priorities of French foreign policy centre on “security, independence, solidarity and influence” (French Embassy in the United Kingdom, 2018).

In this light, the benefits of increased scope and weight of a combination of the two powers’ foreign policy efforts seem obvious, especially when seen in the context of the institutional and economic might of the European Union. Indeed, important progress has been made on the path towards a common Franco-German foreign policy at the heart of an EU framework. Today, considerable integration exists in the foreign policy and security architecture of the two countries. The Elysée Treaty established close coordination and regular government consultations, including among foreign and defence ministers. From the establishment of a 6,000-strong German-French brigade in 1989, to the integration of important industrial infrastructure (e.g. Airbus or the merger of tank producers Kraus-Maffei-Wegmann and Nexter), to the creation of PESCO; slow but continuous progress has taken place. Paris and Berlin have acted in tandem during the negotiations of the Iran nuclear agreement alongside the UK, the US, Russia and China. France and Germany also lead various important diplomatic formats, such as the Weimar Triangle (with Poland) or the Normandy Format. Germany has supported France’s UN-sanctioned military engagement in Mali, first logistically and later by stationing a small contingent of troops under an EU training mission.

Crucially, following Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its support for separatist forces in Eastern Ukraine, the governments in Paris and Berlin both acted to abandon their previous models of ‘strategic partnership’ (France) and ‘modernisation partnership’ (Germany) with Russia, which were built around rapprochement through modernisation via close political and economic cooperation. Against substantial domestic opposition from business interests, particularly in Germany, both countries built consensus for diplomatic action and a unified European sanction regime against Russia, following the lead of the United States (Seibel, 2015). The response, while not as swift or comprehensive as some had called for, nonetheless showed that Europe is principally able to react to substantial political crises in areas of its immediate interests – in this case triggered by a forced unilateral change to European post-WWII borders by Russia. In the face of the magnitude of this development, European foreign policy coordination was able to avoid Russia’s tendency to divide Member States via bilateral interactions and act in a unified manner. Since then, France and Germany have jointly taken the initiative in the negotiation of the Minsk agreement which to this day has been the only serious (but so far unsuccessful) attempt at solving the situation in Ukraine.

In stark contrast, unlike in the Crimean case, France and Germany have not been able to agree on a strategy for common engagement in cases as vital to European interests such as the Syrian and Libyan civil wars. In these cases France has acted alongside the US and UK, while German politicians retreated to emphasising the absolute exceptionality of German military participation. In the light of this disunity at its core, a role for the EU as a relevant foreign policy actor duly became unrealistic.

The discrepancy between these cases in terms of French and German willingness or ability to agree on a common foreign policy position and to implement it in the European context raises two important questions which I seek to investigate in this paper: (1) Why was it that both countries were able to agree and act relatively quickly in the case of Crimea? (2) What lessons can we draw from this case for the prospects for an effective common European foreign policy in other cases?

I will argue in this paper that European foreign policy coordination is constrained by Germany’s reluctance to act decisively in situations that do not immediately affect its perceived vital national interests, and that the Ukraine case differs from other cases precisely because German national interests were directly affected. Russia’s actions in Ukraine were sufficiently drastic to force Germany to give up its generally cautious foreign policy stance to reassure its Eastern European neighbours and contain further Russian aggression. I will furthermore argue that, in the Ukrainian case, France did not have substantial direct interests at stake. Following its interventionist tendency Paris was willing to sacrifice aspects of its engagement policy and nascent economic relationship with Russia to respond to a strategic threat from a fellow P5 member. Finally, I will argue that EU coordination, in particular in the fields of sanctions coordination and European energy diplomacy, has been an important tool in aligning interests of various Member States to maintain a relatively united front towards Russia. Nonetheless, while these improvements in coordination and interest alignment are important, a common European foreign policy will remain difficult to achieve without a more assertive German foreign policy culture.

The remainder of this paper is structured as follows: the next section will outline the interests and policy strategies of France and Germany vis-à-vis Russia. It will then discuss the European policy response to the Ukraine crisis in the context of the various interests of EU Member States and outline measures taken by the EU to align those interests to increase the coherence of the European policy response. The last section will present an outlook and challenges to achieving a broader common EU foreign policy. The paper will conclude by outlining ways for France and Germany to overcome these shortcomings.

French interests and recent approaches vis-à-vis Russia

The French relationship with Russia may be best understood from the history of the two countries as Great Powers on the Western and Eastern borders of the European continent. Russia’s interests are seldom directly tangential to French military and economic interests, yet the two countries’ relations are developed and comprehensive. Their membership in the UNSC, their status as nuclear powers and their ambitions for regional influence in the Middle East form the core of overlapping interests. While Russia supported the French UN-sanctioned intervention in Mali, the two countries are strictly at odds over support for the government of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, whom Moscow supports and Paris firmly opposes (The Guardian, 2015). In Eastern Europe, Russia’s actions can affect vital French interests indirectly, when a potential crisis would force France to redirect its scarce military and diplomatic resources away from core interests in the Mediterranean, Africa and the Middle East. This effect is often amplified by dynamics within the European Union, where crises tend to shift the policy making agenda within the European institutions.

Before the Crimea crisis, French-Russian relations had expanded significantly, especially during the Chirac and Sarkozy presidencies. High-level government consultations as the backbone of a ‘strategic partnership’ have been in place since 2001. In 2010, in the context of a state visit by Russian President Medvedev, President Sarkozy spoke of France being “the great friend of the great Russia” (cited in Delcour, 2010). The same event also marked the completion of the final negotiations between both countries about the sale of two Mistral class helicopter carriers to Russia, which would later be cancelled in light of Russia’s actions in Ukraine.

Concurrently, economic relationships, which had hitherto been relatively limited compared German, Italian or Austrian engagements in Russia, were also significantly elevated. Against heavy criticism from Poland and the Baltic States, France decided to increase its role in the group of large European energy importers of Russian hydrocarbons (i.e. Germany, Italy, Netherlands and Austria). In 2010, Gas de France (now renamed Engie) joined the consortium of minority shareholders in Nord Stream, a gas pipeline under the Baltic Sea that directly connects Russia with Germany (Nord Stream AG, 2010). In 2011, French oil-major Total became possibly the most important French corporate actor in Russia when it purchased a sizeable minority shareholding in the private Russian gas company Novatek and the vast Yamal LNG field. This decision has tied one of the largest French companies closely to Russia, where Total generated 20% of its global oil & gas production in 2017 (Total SA, 2018).

Overall however, French energy imports from Russia are relatively limited, unlike in many other European states (including Germany) where they constitute a major part of the economic relations of with Russia. France, largely as a consequence of its retention of a vast nuclear park as its most important source of electricity, has a more diversified energy mix, which also includes gas and LNG imports from Algeria, Nigeria and Qatar. In 2016, gas contributed only 6% to French electricity generation (iea, 2017) and Russia accounted for only around 25% of French gas imports (BP Plc, 2017).

In summary, the Franco-Russian relationship is dominated less by directly overlapping interests, but by the two countries with unique geo-political roles as P5 and nuclear powers as well as their interventionist foreign policies. While common energy projects exist in particular in the context of oil-major Total, the overall degree of mutual dependence is limited. Hence, despite an initial reluctance to confront Russia by means of sanctions, mostly as a result of the likely forced cancellation of the Mistral delivery to Russia (Seibel, 2015), France had no clear interest to oppose a strong response to the Crimean annexation, as long as vital communication channels to Moscow remained open.

German interests and recent approaches vis-à-vis Russia

For Germany, the relationship to Russia is a matter of vital national interest and has been at the centre of foreign policy strategy for many generations. German-Russian relations are driven by an intricate web of domestic interests and individual and institutional memories, which are framed by the two countries’ long history of conflict and interaction. Relations between the countries continue to be shaped by the enormous loss of live and suffering during WWII, its geo-political consequences, as well as the more than fifty years of Russian dominance over the German Democratic Republic, which still affects the views of citizens and institutions both in the former GDR and in former West-Germany.

Areas of traditional German foreign policy and Russian interests overlap, and often collide in Eastern Europe, Eurasia, the Balkan and Turkey, where the EU and Russia compete for influence. Germany’s role as the largest member of the EU and its geographic position in the centre of Europe, necessitate its foreign policy vis-à-vis Russia to take into account implications on its Eastern European neighbours, particular Poland and the Baltic states. These states are, for geographic and historical reasons, often wary of an overly close relationship between Moscow and Berlin that could marginalise their security and economic interests. As a consequence, German-Russian relations are moderated by a unique web of mutual dependencies.

Similar to France, and prior to the Crimean crisis, Germany pursued a ‘modernisation partnership’ with Russia, which involved close political and economic cooperation and, by building on long-established economic ties in particular in the field of energy, promoted a strong increase in trade and investments by German companies in Russia. Indeed, both countries are profoundly interdependent in terms of energy and trade. Germany depends on Russia for energy supplies while Russia depends on Germany as an important market and as the largest supplier of industrial equipment. Indeed, Russia supplied close to 50% of German gas imports in 2016 while Germany accounted for 24% of Russian gas exports (BP, 2016). Even after the implementation of Russian sanctions following the Crimea annexation, German exports to Russia made up 15% of total Russian imports in 2017. Nonetheless, Russian trade accounts only for a very small portion of overall German exports (2% in 2017), hence showing Germany’s limited exposure to the Russian market (Statistisches Bundesamt, 2018).

Energy infrastructure also plays an important role in the relationship between the two countries. The Nord Stream pipelines, which bypass the Ukrainian transit route to directly connect Russia with north-eastern Germany, significantly improve supply security for Germany and other Western European states. The first of two pipelines was finalised in 2011 and an expansion, anticipated to be completed by 2019, would increase Nord Stream’s combined capacity to 110bcm, which is roughly equal to Ukraine’s pre Nord Stream transit volumes of 110bcm in 2010 (Reuters, 2017). It would therefore allow a significant reduction of transit via Ukraine (as well as Slovakia and Poland), reducing transit revenues and bargaining position. Eastern European states, in particular Poland, vehemently argue against its planned expansion, citing the increased dependency of key European markets on Russia and an undermining of solidarity amongst European Member States.

Importantly, even after the implementation of sanctions against Russia, German energy companies have preserved their relationship with Gazprom and indeed Russian gas imports into Germany have further increased in 2017, as Germany is reducing its use of coal for the production of energy (European Commission, 2018). The controversy over the Nord Stream 2 expansion highlights the substantial tensions within the EU that are created by Germany’s insistence on protecting its energy interests and direct relationship with Gazprom and Russia.

In summary, Germany’s unique and multilayered relationship with Russia is based on mutual interdependence in energy supplies and trade and moderated by the interests of Germany’s neighbours in Eastern Europe. It is in this context that Germany’s foreign policy response to the Ukrainian crisis should be understood. Despite significant domestic economic interests and calls for a foreign policy based on dialogue rather than confrontation (Seibel, 2015), Germany’s position reflected a careful compromise between its own direct interests and those of its European partners. It chose to follow its old ‘denomination’ and to adopt the US policy of sanctions against Russia. Nonetheless, by lobbying to structure sanctions in a way left energy imports largely unimpeded, Germany also protected its vital energy interests, and with them an open line to Moscow.

Interest alignment in EU foreign politics – improvements and limits

Within other EU Member States, interests towards Russia are diverse and complex. In some cases, such as Italy, they centre on energy supply and regional influence – in Italy’s case in particular the Balkan and Northern Africa. Outside of the supply of energy, Italy’s vital interests are only peripherally affected by Russia. Its main interest therefore is to avoid an all out confrontation with Russia and to keep economic relationships intact (Rosato, 2016). On the other side of the spectrum stand the Eastern European and Baltic states, with Poland as the most significant voice among them. Poland’s relationship with Russia is complex. Its border with the heavily militarised Russian enclave Kaliningrad emphasises the security challenge at the heart of its national interests. At the same time, Poland’s size, economic and population growth pose it as a rival to Russian’s influence in Eastern Europe. Warsaw is also one of the strongest supporters for Ukrainian NATO and EU membership, a position which it shares with its long term ally in the US (Buras & Balcer, 2016). Finally – while its future foreign policy relationship with the EU is not yet clear – the UK remains an important actor, not the least because of its P5-membership, nuclear status and capable military. The UK is also an important factor in Ukraine, where it fulfils an important military training mission. London’s relationship with Moscow has deteriorated strongly in the aftermath of the poisoning of Viktor Skripal, however it had long been relatively distant. British support for the sanctions against Russia and support for Ukraine was – after some initial reluctance – a strong and important driver for creating consensus among EU members (The Guardian, 2014).

EU foreign policy coordination

The above mentioned different interests of the various parties with respect to Russia illustrate the difficulty for EU Member States to agree on a common foreign policy on any topic. This point is illustrated by the conflict between supporters of Nord Stream 2, most prominently Germany, and strong opposition from Poland, Slovakia the Baltic States but also the European Commission. A consequence of this behaviour is that Third States, such as Russia, can utilise points of division among EU members to interact with states on a bilateral basis rather than through EU foreign policy institutions, i.e. the European External Action Service and the High Representative. Due to those two dynamics – competing interests on the inside, and the strategy to ‘divide and conquer’ by outside Third States – the establishment of Brussels as an important foreign policy representation of its Member States has so far been largely unsuccessful.

Nonetheless, as with the project of Franco-German foreign policy coordination, Russia’s actions in Ukraine have kick-started some important European initiatives to improve its central capacities to align and coordinate interests. First, the High Representative and Commission have proven to be effective in upholding unanimity for implementing and upholding of sanctions against Russia in the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) since 2014. Second, the EEAS-led eastern neighbourhood initiatives in Ukraine since the signing of the Association Agreement in 2014 have given the EU foreign policy actors a clear purpose and competency to oversee and implement the various support measures to Ukraine. The proposed 26% increase in the External Action budget (EEAS, 2018) for the 2021-27 legislative period, underlines the increasing ambition of Brussels’ based foreign policy coordination. Third, most importantly in the context of Russia, the European Commission (EC) has gained substantial additional new powers to align the external energy interests of EU member states. At the core of this endeavour stands the EU Energy Union and Energy Diplomacy which aim at (1) increasing internal energy security and solidarity, (2) support and coordination for the diversification of external energy sources and (3) aspiring for Europe to “speak with one voice” in its external energy relations. The EC’s is funding and coordination of the connection of the Finnish and Baltic gas connections to the European mainland via the Balticconnect pipeline to reduce the regions risk of supply disruption caused by Russia, serves as an example of these initiatives (European Commission, 2017a). As a consequence of the threat from Russia’s actions in Ukraine, in July 2015 Member States have supported the EU Energy Diplomacy Action Plan, which calls “to enhance common analysis and to enable commonly agreed actions and messages, in particular to support the external aspects of the Energy Union” (Council of the European Union, 2015).

While this is very far from an independent ability of Brussels to impose upon its members any kind of foreign policy discipline or alignment, it is still an important step to closer cooperation on a crucial element of the EU’s external relations. Since 2015, some important external supervision powers have been added to the EC’s tool box. In November 2017, the Security of Gas Supply Regulation was strengthened significantly, forcing Member States to introduce union-wide supply disruption simulations and improve their capacities for internal market solidarity. It also expanded the reach of European regulations to all gas related infrastructure to and from Third States, i.e. including Nord Stream (European Commission, 2017b). This followed on an April 2017 legislative act which introduced an ex ante requirement for Member States to inform the EC of negotiations with Third States on energy supply contracts and forces States to submit non-binding and binding agreements to the EC for review. The EC even received the right to participate in these negotiations (European Union, 2017).

Each of these initiatives serves the purpose of reducing internal potential for conflicting interests, by introducing EC supervision in external policies for sanctions, neighbourhood and energy. They can help to establish Brussels as a foreign policy actor in these areas. Still, without the agreement and support of France, Germany, and other member states these initiatives can only help to reduce the potential to individual foreign policies to undermine a common position in important questions.

Prospects for a common EU foreign policy: French and German perspectives

Europe’s response to Russian aggression in the Ukraine has shown that, where France and Germany engage assertively and make domestic sacrifices to protect the interests of affected Member States, it is possible to construct an EU foreign policy consensus that protects the interests of all European Member States. There is certainly no shortage of important items on the European foreign policy agenda that necessitate such a consensus: establishing a stable equilibrium of relations between Europe and Russia, ending protracted conflicts in Ukraine and Syria, clarifying the future of the Iranian nuclear deal and relations with Iran in general, defining the EU’s relationships the United States and China and finally the important climate negotiations ahead of 2020.

For Germany, the opportunity of elevating Franco-German foreign policy alignment from opportunistic cooperation to holistic foreign policy integration lies in binding France’s military and political weight into a global forum where German interests can be expressed more effectively than through bilateral relations. This is of high strategic importance given that today no credible unilateral tools of foreign policy exist for Germany (with the possible exception of its trade financing and weapons export capabilities). Integration with France is also imperative from a different perspective; to manage the (small but not inconceivable) risk of a renewed Franco-Russian entente without German participation - under a different French government in the future - which would significantly weaken Germany’s ability to conduct any form of foreign policy towards Russia.

But Germany must be prepared to pay the price for such integration. Three components can be identified to align ‘denominations’: (1) Germany must modernise its military and diplomatic capabilities to be able to conduct military intervention missions in the European neighbourhood. It must also moderate the firm domestic consensus of principle unwillingness to participate in such missions; (2) Germany must continue to support the Energy Union and contribute by investing into projects that improve the integration of the internal market (e.g. via investment in north-south electricity infrastructure); (3) Germany must lead by example and step back from unilateral initiatives, such as Nord Stream 2, that openly foster discord amongst Member States. Chancellor Merkel’s and Foreign Minister Maas’ recent more cautious comments regarding Nord Stream 2 indicate the adoption of such a stance (Financial Times, 2018).

France, on the other hand, must end its policy of using the EU clout only opportunistically where it suits French foreign policy interests, while engaging in unilateral action or initiatives with fellow P5 members US and UK elsewhere. By doing so, France undermines the effectiveness of the European foreign policy coordination institutions. This is even more relevant in the context of Brexit. Where on important matters of European interest (such as recently in Syria) France and future non-EU member Britain bilaterally join a coalition with the remainder of the EU sitting on the fence, any attempts to a common EU policy are significantly undermined.

If a German increase in strategic capacity and willingness to engage could be achieved, France’s interests would be well served to contribute its capacities to EU common foreign policy. After all, France too is in a bind with limited economic resources in a deteriorating military strategic environment (Gomart, 2017). The French model of effective strategic military and diplomatic autonomy is better served within a European context, in close alignment with its German neighbour.

There are substantial political and cultural hurdles in the German domestic environment to adopt a more ambitious foreign and security policy. A historically conditioned pacifism, both in the population and amongst political representatives, has long posed an obstacle to military engagement of any kind. Following the highly controversial German engagement in Kosovo and the less controversial but ongoing and unpopular combat mission in Afghanistan, public support for military intervention has decreased substantially. Ahead of the April 2018 intervention in Syria by the US, UK and France to respond to the repeated use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government, a Kantar Emnid survey in Germany showed 86% of respondents opposing German participation in a military mission in Syria (Reuters, 2018).

In addition, some of the reluctance to a more assertive foreign policy may be found in the different institutional structures in Berlin compared to Paris (Demesmay, 2018). While in France the President of the Republic has far reaching liberties in defining foreign and security policy, German decision making is subject to parliamentary majority and the need to create consensus within the governing coalition. This is further complicated by the political dynamics between the parties that form the government coalition. The German Foreign Minister is often the most senior politician of the junior coalition partner and has (with the exception of the current and the previous ‘Grand Coalition’ government) traditionally been the Vice Chancellor.

This reluctance and need for consensus can be an asset for German policy, where diplomatic solutions and dialogue are highly valued. A significant German remilitarisation and adoption of a French-style interventionist strategic culture are both fundamentally undesirable and unnecessary. However, in recent years, the hurdles for foreign policy engagement by Germany, constructed of public opinion and institutional complexity, are prohibitively high where German interests are not immediately affected. In selected cases, military intervention may be unavoidable to protect common interests, as has been the case in the Balkan in the past and could be argued was the case in Syria. It is upon political leaders in Germany to increase their efforts to explain the necessity of such policy. Importantly, French and other European partners should demand and support such efforts.


Fifty-five years after the signing of the Elysée Treaty, the question of European ‘strategic autonomy’ is as present as ever. The European Union Global Strategy speaks of an “appropriate level of ambition and strategic autonomy” for the Union to be able to “promote peace within its borders and beyond” (European Council, 2016). Indeed, Chancellor Merkel has called for European states to “bring European weight to the solution of global problems” (Bundesregierung, 2018a).

However, in light of the numerous individual Member States’ interests, it is hard to foresee how the fundamental problem of the multi-voiced Europe foreign policy can be overcome without significant alignment of interests at the core of the EU between France and Germany. As we have seen, the ‘different nominations’ in Paris and Berlin in terms of foreign policy have posed substantial challenges so far, which are observable for example in the differences in opinion on interventions in Syria and Libya. Yet, as the response to Russia’s actions in Ukraine has shown, Europe and its two largest Member States are in principal able to overcome diverging interests and foreign policy approaches in order to respond in a coordinated – albeit imperfect – manner through sanctions and diplomatic action.

I have argued in this paper that Germany and France, and the coordination among them, make or break the prospects of coordinated EU foreign policy. In order for France to submit its interventionist foreign policy to a stronger degree of European coordination, Germany needs to move away from its highly cautious approach to foreign policy engagement, in particular in situations that (unlike the Ukraine crisis) do not directly affect its vital national interests. Berlin needs to foster both the institutional capacities and the foreign policy culture necessary for such assertiveness. This is especially important given the exit of the UK from Brussels’ foreign policy coordination – no matter what the post Brexit arrangement will look like.

This paper makes it clear that many hurdles remain to a common European foreign policy which would represent the continent’s interests more effectively vis-à-vis other great powers. Nonetheless, the Ukraine crisis has opened the policy agenda for important initiatives and tools to align interests among Member States. It is upon France and Germany to use this momentum to overcome their different ‘denominations’ in order to make Europe’s voice heard more effectively on the global stage.


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