Franco-German cooperation in practice
At the meeting of German and French government ministers held at Schloss Meseberg outside Berlin on 19 June 2018, Finance Minister Olaf Scholz and his French counterpart Bruno Le Maire agreed on a roadmap to advance the European Union’s Economic and Monetary Union. They also adopted a common position on the issue of harmonising the corporate tax base in the -EU. The roadmap contains plans to further stabilise the European banking sector (banking union). In addition, it lays out proposals to expand the European Stability Mechanism and to create a budget for the euro area. In the area of corporate taxation, Germany and France aim to advance tax harmonisation within the EU by supporting European legislative proposals to establish a common corporate tax base. The joint proposals are currently being discussed with EU partners.
The linchpin of European integration
Despite their differing views on the role of the state and their different approaches to EU fiscal and economic policy, Germany and France consistently and purposefully work towards the common European cause. This is mandated by the Élysée Treaty of 1963, which forms the basis of Franco-German friendship. This cooperation illustrates the treaty’s historic significance even in the present day.
In fact, experience has shown that a workable compromise within the EU is always most likely when Germany and France adopt a common position. As a result, these two countries are seen to have paved the way for many European compromises and projects and, in constant cooperation with their European partners, are important driving forces within the EU. Whenever the Franco-German tandem fails to take the lead frequently enough, political observers tend to complain of a European leadership vacuum or lament that the ‘Franco-German engine’ is stuttering. But when France and Germany do launch joint initiatives, they are often criticised as a ‘de-facto directorate’ that prepares decisions without any input from other EU member states. However, there is rarely any truth to the latter accusation – Franco-German initiatives are most accurately described as the starting point of European decision-making processes rather than the end point. Moreover, the requirement of unanimity or qualified majority eliminates the risk of a small number of member states going it alone.
The forces of disintegration, populism and nationalism are gaining considerable traction both in the EU and in its neighbouring states to the south and east. In a growing number of EU member states, a commitment to European integration no longer forms part of an undisputed, fundamental political consensus.
Against this background, Germany and France have a special responsibility to take on political leadership. By launching joint initiatives and creating the right conditions where necessary, they can secure the EU’s future ability to take action.
A new Élysée Treaty – a bold step towards greater Franco-German cooperation
That is why Germany and France are working together on a new Élysée Treaty, in the knowledge that they are each other’s closest and most trusted partners in Europe. It is intended as a joint Franco-German answer to the new challenges facing Europe. The new Élysée Treaty will need to take account of the advanced state of bilateral relations between Germany and France, and it will have to enhance the two countries’ ability to take joint decisions, even on difficult issues.
The Élysée Treaty
French President Charles de Gaulle and German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer signed the Treaty on German-French Cooperation at the Élysée Palace in Paris on 22 January 1963. The treaty paved the way for a reconciliation of the former ‘hereditary enemies’. The two countries resolved to hold regular intergovernmental consultations with the aim of reaching agreements on foreign, European and defence policy. One direct result was the foundation of the Franco-German Youth Office on 5 July 1963. Efforts to promote encounters between German and French people resulted in 2,200 town twinnings, 180 academic exchange programmes and the founding of the television station ARTE. In 1988, German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and French President François Mitterrand signed additional protocols to the Élysée Treaty. These led to the creation of a Joint Financial and Economic Council, an Environment and Culture Council, and a Defence and Security Council, which evolved into Eurocorps in 1993. To mark the 40th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty in 2003, the two countries introduced regular meetings of the newly established Franco-German Council of Ministers, which features the cabinets of both countries.
Now more than ever, a far-reaching understanding of the partner country and, in particular, mutual trust among those in charge of implementing the partnership are needed in order to give the agreements real substance in everyday French and German political life. This requires long-term institutional relations within a well-functioning Franco-German network.
The Franco-German Seminar – setting the pace of cooperation
In this context, the Franco-German Seminar represents an important contribution of the German Finance Ministry. It was launched by Ministers Hans Eichel and Dominique Strauss-Kahn at the Franco-German Financial and Economic Council in the German town of Hattersheim in 1999. The objective is for officials of the German Ministry of Finance and the French Ministry for the Economy and Finance in Paris to get to know the respective partner country’s institutions, discuss current Franco-German issues with high-ranking representatives from politics, administration and business, and create a permanent network for further cooperation between the two ministries.
The French Ministry for the Economy and Finance
The French Ministry for the Economy and Finance (Ministère de l'Économie et des Finances, or MINEFI for short) is one of France’s most important government departments. It is informally known as ‘Bercy’ due to its location in the eponymous Paris district.
One seminar cycle lasts two years and features the participation of around 10 young, higher-grade civil servants from each of the two ministries as well as officials from both ministries who are participating in an exchange. Two sessions, each lasting several days, are held each year, hosted alternately by Germany and France. The 10th seminar cycle began in Berlin in May 2018.
Participants of the seminar greatly value the opportunity to engage in intensive and wide-ranging discussions with their counterparts from the partner country over an extended period of time, and to gain insight into management and leadership in the spheres of politics, administration and business.
The Franco-German Seminar is a perfect framework for professional Franco-German interaction. It offers a chance to hold in-depth, lively and creative debates away from the often rigid and technocratic communication structures in EU bodies. In the 9th cycle, we discussed how we could better shape the framework of our common currency in the future, developed joint strategies for the public relations work of local authorities, and gained insights into our parliamentary systems. Some of the French participants found themselves defending a ‘German’ position, while some of the German participants thought the ‘French’ view of things was more plausible. The important thing was that, although we did not get to the end of each day with a joint position on all of the issues that had been discussed, we had recognised that it was always worth continuing the debate on the following day. The seminar succeeded in creating a constructive and friendly atmosphere and building relationships based on trust. This has had a very real impact on my work at the Finance Ministry: since taking part in the seminar, I have often reached for the phone and simply called Bercy. That’s how we can make progress, and how Europe can make progress.
Dr Christoph Priesmeier (9th cycle)
My takeaway from the Franco-German Seminar is that everyone should take advantage of the opportunity to take part in this event. The seminar is enriching in so many ways. The extensive programme, which often features very high-ranking speakers, offers interesting insights into topical issues on both sides of the Rhine, French administration and the structure of the state. Above all, there are opportunities for exchange and discussion at the personal level which go far beyond the scope of normal professional interactions. In 2017 – an election year in both countries – it was particularly fascinating to see how differently German and French colleagues assessed and approached current challenges such as EU reforms, the refugee crisis and Brexit, while simultaneously being guided by a strong common awareness of the need for deeper cooperation in Europe. In addition to stays in Berlin and Paris, the programme features stints in regional capitals – in the 9th cycle, these were Bordeaux and Stuttgart. This allows participants to broaden their horizons, which is vital, particularly in view of the differences between France’s centrally organised state and Germany’s federal structure. For me, however, the most valuable benefit of the seminar was that it changed my image of the French administration considerably. My views are no longer based on abstract book learning, but are linked to individual faces and contacts and are therefore much more personal.
Dr Dominik Wallau (9th cycle)
Over the course of many personal conversations, I have become aware that we share common interests and ideas with our French colleagues on how to deal with the challenges of our time. In this respect, the Franco-German Seminar has been a complete success for me. It has strengthened my confidence in the Europe we share.
Ariane Heinisch (10th cycle)
I am very pleased to have the opportunity to meet more colleagues from the Ministry for the Economy and Finance during the Franco-German Seminar and to engage in personal discussions with them. There are many challenges of the future that need to be tackled on both sides of the Rhine, which makes it particularly helpful and interesting to learn first-hand how these issues are dealt with on the French side. My insights into the mentality and working methods at the French Ministry for the Economy and Finance will no doubt facilitate cooperation with colleagues in Bercy with whom I work together directly. Our first meeting in Berlin was very promising, and I look forward to two exciting and enjoyable years in the seminar’s 10th cycle.
Christopher Finck (10th cycle)