After PESCO, Should France Wait a German Government?

Europe can’t hope for a vigorous defense policy from Germany. After the signature of PESCO, what can France do while waiting for the new German government?

We thought we had become used to the unthinkable, and yet politics always finds a way to surprise us. The death of the so-called Jamaica coalition in its infancy (named after the yellow, black and green party colors of its participants) puts the chancellor in a dangerous position. With the Social Democrats steadily refusing of entering in a new grand coalition with Merkel, the remaining options are equally horrific scenarios for the CDU: while a minority government would be an absolute first in the history of the federal republic, the party is still shell-shocked by the mediocre performance at the ballots. Fresh elections would be a significant gamble for a party where calls to reposition on more rightwing positions are multiplying. It would certainly be a problematic position for Merkel, who despite the absence of convincing alternatives will still take all the blame for this deadlock. In a way, the choice is between the instability of leading a minority government, tasked to form alternative majorities along the way, and the instability of new elections (plus negotiations for a new government).

The World Upside Down

Mali training mission

Ironically, the situation mirrors the state of Europe before Macron’s elections, when France was considered a lame duck risking a populist infection and Berlin had to carry the weight of the continent despite its own uneasiness and lack of enthusiasm from its Eastern and Southern partners. This state of unravel, has been argued, is all but good news: the series of fiscal and political reforms backed by Macron and Merkel were always set to be launched after the forming of a new German government. Without popular mandate, there is little the chancellor can do to embark in the negotiations, and without the richest economy of the bloc Europe can’t radically alter its mandate. With the Franco-German engine still out of order for the next few months, Paris can however start setting the stage for the discussion. Despite the enthusiasm, there are few topics where the two countries completely agree. Economic cleavages aside, common defense and foreign policy are thematic areas in which Berlin and Paris follow opposed playbooks. Germany is significantly constrained in its use of military force, and the lack of decisiveness has already been criticized during the Libyan Crisis, when the Luftwaffe refrained from participating in the coalition campaign. For better or worse, Berlin is not a monolithic entity when it comes to foreign policy, and despite far from being the mercantilistic, economy-driven power it’s depicted as, the last Merkel government had to address some peculiar incidents: a coalition partner such as the SPD with glaringly pro-Moscow members, the participation in doubious projects such as the pipeline North Stream (which would make Europe even more reliant on Russian gas), as well as an austerity policy which has contributed to the decay of the Bundeswehr. Similar mistakes are hardly unknown to France, but it’s obvious to who goes beyond the optimistic declarations coming from Berlin that German resolve on external action is insufficient and eons away from contributing to the construction of an alternative to the US-led international order. The recent signing of PESCO, which has been hailed as a step in the right direction in common defense, has showed yet again a familiar dynamic: France pushed for the creation of a “pioneer group” of closely collaborating countries, while Germany instated for the creation of a watered-down notification welcoming most EU members and thus rendering even this mechanism a far cry from true, close collaboration between armies.

Waiting for Merkel

These next few months of wait don’t mean France should stay idle. Even if there is little it can do outside of the German partnership, Macron can do much to create consensus and convince other countries the French idea of a multi-speed EU, with some countries agreeing on sharing more defense and foreign policy responsibilities, is the right way to go. Italy and Spain would certainly welcome the embrace of what the last French Defense White Paper called “minilateralism”, the development of capabilities below the EU level between member states. This is in the French interests, as it would certainly bolster the country’s overstretched army and deliver the much desired relief in Mali (which until now has been supplied by the US, to much disdain of the French).

These initiatives would be more pragmatic than the largely symbolic and budget-driven joint German-Dutch tank brigade, and would shape EU external action after the French desires. This is both a risk, as Common Defense shouldn’t become an auxiliary corp to Paris’ ambitions, but would also finally deliver some experimental proofs-of-concept in the only scenario the EU is currently active and where the stakes are particularly high because of the jihadist threat: North Africa. For historic reasons, it’s inevitable for France to take the lead in the area, and conflicts will surely arise between diverging positions with Italy when it comes to Libya, and urgent reforms such as the reshaping of the EU military industrial sector would still be out of reach.  Nevertheless, it would be a start and provide a future reform-minded EU, with Germany back on the saddle, with a new instrument and a partner which has shown to be able of providing the decisiveness Merkel lacks.

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