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Franco-German Relations

Facing Putin: From EU Sanctions to a European Army?

May 18, 2015 | by CRAIG WILLY

Angela Merkel, German Federal Chancellor and François Hollande, President of France © The European Union via flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

In shaping the European response to Russia during the Ukraine crisis, Paris and Berlin have taken an assertive role. But do France and Germany provide enough long-term leadership to turn the European Union into a true strategic power?

The Franco-German partnership has played an enormous role in shaping and uniting postwar Europe. The two countries have generally been stronger on European integration – creating a common market and currency, the Euro – than in war and diplomacy. However, with the crisis in Ukraine, Paris and Berlin have made the European Union (EU) into a trade bloc with a bite, imposing significant sanctions on Russia. At the same time, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President François Hollande have taken a largely reactive approach, providing little long-term leadership to turn the EU into a true strategic power in line with its economic clout.

In terms of foreign policy France and Germany are typically out of sync: When President Charles de Gaulle sought détente with the Soviet bloc, this was not coordinated with Chancellor Willy Brandt’s later Ostpolitik of closer ties with the east. President Jacques Chirac and Chancellor Gerhard Schröder’s opposition to the Iraq War was a rare point of unity, one that did not have many wider ramifications. Similarly, while France has taken an activist role in wars in Libya, Syria, Mali and Iraq, Germany has taken a more passive one. There are deep-rooted asymmetries: While Germany is still largely a civilian power uninterested in foreign interventions, France takes pride in her atom bombs and numerous military expeditions in Africa.

A trade bloc with bite

In that respect, one can see significant progress as Paris and Berlin have taken a much more assertive role in shaping the European response to Russia, especially in the wake of the crisis and civil war in Ukraine. The EU considers Russia’s unilateral annexation of Crimea and support for eastern Ukrainian secessionists as unacceptable behavior in the post-Cold War order. Already at least 6,000 people have been killed and around 2 million have been forced to flee their homes.

The EU has been able to impose significant sanctions against Russia, including cutting off major Russian companies from European financial markets, banning exports of advanced mining and exploration equipment for the critical Russian oil and gas sector, and various restrictions on specific individuals.

The Russian economy entered recession in December 2014. This may have been primarily due to a massive fall in global oil prices, but there is no question that sanctions contributed. Brussels’ targeting of capital- and tech-hungry Russian companies could well have a significant impact on long-term growth potential. Russia has responded by increasing its economic independence from the West, including developing indigenous inter-bank and cloud computing networks, and deepening ties with China.

European sanctions have not, however, achieved their maximal objectives in Ukraine: The end of the eastern insurgency and the dislodging of Russia from Crimea. This is not surprising. Put simply: Moscow will always care more about Ukraine than Brussels.

Nonetheless, the sanctions are a significant achievement for European leaders given the EU’s institutional problems. The union is a world-class trade bloc but according to the European Treaties, sanctions may only be imposed by the unanimous decision of 28 countries. That means a single reluctant EU country – say a crisis-struck Greece or a country bribed by Russia – may block sanctions.

The EU has imposed these sanctions despite the economic crisis still crippling many countries, particularly in the eurozone. The sanctions have also come at a cost to European economies, particularly with the Russian counter-sanctions of a ban on European agricultural products. France has, apparently indefinitely, postponed honoring a contract selling a Mistral warship to Russia, hurting her international credibility as an arms provider. German exports to Russia have been collapsing, with a 35 percent drop in January as compared with the previous year. Ultimately however, these costs have proven manageable and almost certainly less damaging than the hurt to the Russian economy.

Chancellor Merkel and President Hollande have been taking the lead in meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin and mediating with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko. The Franco-German couple has had some success in promoting limited ceasefires, but ultimately the conflict smolders on. Crimea seems to be irreversibly split from Ukraine and eastern Ukraine looks headed to become a “frozen conflict” similar to Transnistria in Moldova or South Ossetia in Georgia.

Franco-German partnership and “the European way” of consensus are showing their limits in the face of a hard, armed and sovereign leader like Putin. We risk a permanent economic divorce between Russia and the European mainstream, one that would undermine the wider peace and potential of what General de Gaulle called a “European Europe … from the Atlantic to the Ourals.”

Towards a European Army?

Paris and Berlin can thus claim to have made significant progress in making the EU into a “power” relative to Russia. But one has to say that, more generally, Chancellor Merkel and President Hollande have shown little leadership in making Europe into a genuine strategic actor.

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker recently suggested an EU military as a solution: “a common European army would send a clear message to Russia that we are serious about defending European values.” But in this area, of giving Europe a strategic and military direction, the Franco-German alliance remains a failure since France’s rejection of the European Defense Community in 1954. Decades of efforts, particularly restarted in the 1990s, have had meager results: A Franco-German battalion and numerous small joint EU military missions, mainly in the Balkans and Africa. (In contrast, European aerospace and defense industry cooperation is significant with Airbus’ numerous military and civilian products and projects.)

The problem is that of the sovereign: National capitals decide whether to commit to an EU mission, there is no “European decider.” National governments prefer to cling to their armies both as a good in itself and as a bargaining chip to be primarily used in a NATO context. This allows lesser European leaders to hobnob with American officials, potentially tapping into or influencing Washington’s massive military, diplomatic and surveillance power.

Juncker’s suggestion caused lively discussion in European capitals and indeed German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen agreed with the idea, at least in the long term. But it seems likely there will be little change in the immediate. No one has shown how a European Army could work in practice or who would make that most momentous decision to risk the blood of young Europeans in war.

There is certainly pressure for change. According to one Eurobarometer poll some 46 percent of EU citizens support in principle the creation of a European Army. Educated Europeans are increasingly “European” in outlook with the spread of English and the internationalization of culture through American TV shows, film and music, through business and education.

But the pressure for Europeanization is too often negative. National governments – typically in Southern and Eastern Europe – are perceived as so corrupt that alienated young people imagine a European government would be preferable. The national authorities are becoming so weak – with collapsing military budgets, economic crisis, demographic aging and shrinking working-age populations – that they often see a European pooling as the only way to maintain a semblance of power. This is not a sound basis for European unification.

Any fundamental changes in the EU’s strategic power – such as a European Army or the imposition of sanctions by majority instead of unanimity – would require a change to the European Treaties towards radical federalism. This would take decisive Franco-German leadership. Thus far however, Merkel has proven too conservative and Hollande too crippling unpopular to provide any. Their European policies have been largely reactive ones trying to prevent the collapse the eurozone rather than offering a positive vision.

Such a federalization would be particularly difficult for the French government to sell, where European integration is often blamed, by both mainstream and radical politicians, for hard choices and often unpopular reforms. As the Bertelsmann Stiftung’s Sustainable Governance Indicators (SGI) point out, “The result is that these concepts are regularly accused of destroying the basis of society and the hallowed ‘French way of life.’”

Any “leap of integration” is unthinkable so long as euroscepticism is rising on the back of the euro crisis and as so many national governments remain unpopular. A durable economic recovery and redressing of public opinion are necessary, before any eventual changes. As the French might say, l’Europe puissance n’est pas pour demain.

Craig Willy is an EU affairs writer. His blog is available here.

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