Hopes for a spectacular relaunch of the European Union’s Franco-German “motor” after Brexit have thus far failed to materialize. Quite the contrary, now that Paris and Berlin find themselves without the British “third wheel,” almost every issue seems to trigger a bilateral squabble. Whether it is armaments cooperation, energy supply from Moscow, or policy towards Turkey, Franco-German disagreements keep rising to the surface. One of these has drawn much attention recently since it relates to the very nature of Europe and its links to the United States: the question of whether or how Europe (by which they usually mean the European Union) should pursue more strategic autonomy. Although the term has come to be associated with current French President Emmanuel Macron, the concept goes back almost 60 years to the first President of the Fifth Republic, General Charles de Gaulle.
Understanding the history of Franco-German debates over strategic autonomy can provide greater context for current discussions and encourage new policy initiatives to manage them in the interests of both the Europeans and Americans. Even if it also means that we must acknowledge such perennial problems will not lend themselves to simple solutions.
“The Germans are behaving like pigs! They fully subject themselves to U.S. power. They betray Europe.” De Gaulle’s furious remarks at the time of the ratification-evisceration of the Franco-German Elysee Treaty by the West German Parliament in 1963 have probably been very much on the mind of French diplomats lately. Judging by the timing—right before and after the U.S. presidential election—of a virulent, high-level spat over European “autonomy,” transatlantic relations are, today just like then, at the heart of Franco-German divergences. Indeed, successive German governments have all practiced the same splitting exercise. On the one side, they lure Paris with the prospect of working together for a “European” Europe (the French would like nothing more); on the other, they reassure the United States of their unfailing Atlanticist loyalty (especially in the defense field, where Berlin does not really have a choice).
In France, the Elysee Treaty’s twisted fate is seen as the original sin. The agreement was meant, in de Gaulle’s eyes, to become an instrument for closer political-strategic cooperation between Paris and Bonn, a way to emancipate themselves from outside interference. The text deliberately made no mention of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the United States, or the then-current negotiations to bring Great Britain into the European Economic Community (EEC). The German Parliament (Bundestag), however, only agreed to ratification on the condition of adding a Preamble—one that, in French understanding, nullified its purpose. The new preface made a point of emphasizing each “missing” part: close partnership with America, collective defense and military integration within the NATO framework, British accession to the EEC, and dismantling of international trade tariffs. It explicitly stressed: “A Franco-German cooperation that is guided by these goals [emphasis added], will bring benefit to the German and the French people.”
Since then, not much has changed. As former European Parliament President Pat Cox observed recently: “Strategic autonomy is a source of tension between France and Germany — who don’t see eye to eye on the extent to which Europe can or should still rely on the U.S.” In this regard, the Trump presidency was an eye-opener. Sensing emerging European doubts about the reliability of U.S. security guarantees, President Macron jumped on the occasion and stated, in November 2019, in his notorious “brain-dead NATO” interview in The Economist: “In my opinion, Europe has the capacity to defend itself.” True to form, Germany stepped on the brakes. Chancellor Angela Merkel responded with a resounding rebuttal: “For the time being, Europe can’t defend itself on its own — we are dependent on NATO.”
One year later, German Defence Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer (often referred to as AKK) made a point clarifying that, regardless of the impending U.S. election’s outcome, “Illusions of European strategic autonomy must come to an end: Europeans will not be able to replace America’s crucial role as a security provider.” Following Joseph Biden’s win, Paris became wary of the growing temptation in European capitals to abdicate the EU’s nascent strategic ambition. Macron displayed, again, the French vision: “Is the change in the American administration going to see Europeans letting up? We cannot lose the European thread and that strategic autonomy, this strength that Europe can have for itself. It is a matter of conceiving the terms of European sovereignty and strategic autonomy, so that we can have our own say and not become the vassal of this or that power and no longer have a say.”
In an unusual move, President Macron explicitly disavowed AKK’s earlier statement: “I profoundly disagree, for instance, with the opinion piece signed by the German Minister of Defence in Politico. I think that it is a historical misinterpretation. Fortunately, if I understood things correctly, the Chancellor does not share this point of view.” Furious, AKK stuck to her guns. The day after the publication of Macron’s interview, she gave a keynote speech in Hamburg: “The idea of strategic autonomy for Europe goes too far if it is taken to mean that we could guarantee security, stability and prosperity in Europe without NATO and without the US. That is an illusion.” A week later, she distorted, again, the French argument: “Well, I have not heard the chancellor saying that NATO is somehow superfluous.” To be fair, self-contradicting German statements, at the highest level, might be confusing—even to German ministers.
Berlin Blowing Hot and Cold
The entire French diplomatic world took notice when Chancellor Merkel declared in May 2018: “It is no longer such that the United States of America will simply protect us. Instead, Europe must take its destiny in its own hands.” Even the always cynical former French Foreign Minister Hubert Védrine commented on it by pointing out: “This is considerable, for no German chancellor have said this since the war.” The same AKK who squabbled with Macron over the autonomy “illusion,” said herself, “Europe would need to become more self-sufficient.” She even cautioned the European Parliament—months before the American election—that with a Biden win “only the tone would change in transatlantic relations.” German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier had used the term “illusion” to qualify the belief that European worries would be over with President Donald Trump’s departure: “We must guard against the illusion that the United States’ dwindling interest in Europe is solely down to the current Administration. For we know that this shift began a while ago, and it will continue even after this Administration.”
In the same speech, though, Steinmeier also stressed: “The European Union is a long way from being able to guarantee the security of all its members by itself.” He forgot to mention that in any case, member-states (of either the EU or NATO)—and not the organizations—are responsible for common defense. Therefore, when it comes to protection, the absence or presence of the United States makes all the difference. But even then-British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s Security Advisor Robert Cooper found this problematic: “It is unsatisfactory that 450 million Europeans rely so much on 250 million Americans to defend them.” Yet, in practice, most European governments have been more than satisfied with this state of affairs. As Minister Védrine (most recently Macron’s special envoy in the NATO Reflection Group) notes, “I could see for myself that French ideas are isolated within the Atlantic Alliance.”
France’s usual feeling of loneliness among EU member-states on the issue of autonomy has been confirmed repeatedly. In the Macron-AKK spat, Polish Defence Minister Mariusz Błaszczak bluntly declared, “We must be closer to the U.S. than ever before;” while Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez publicly announced: “I would say that I’m with this German vision of international relations.” However, EU High Representative Josef Borrell leans more towards Paris: “One is either autonomous or dependent. Does anyone want to be dependent? I don’t think so. A political entity such as Europe should aim not to be dependent, but autonomous.” German politicians, on the other hand, seem to rejoice in the idea of “dependency.” Far from being embarrassed, they reiterate incessantly: “We continue to depend on America’s strategic protection. . . . Europe’s security depends on NATO.” One practical and two political reasons explain Berlin’s remarkable ease to assume such a position.
More Catholic than the Pope: Germany in NATO
A very prosaic consideration lies behind the German emphasis on military dependency and on NATO’s primacy. Arguably, there is no fully fledged, entirely independent German army. For historical reasons, as part of the famous “culture of restraint” (a self-imposed rule of acting only through a multilateral framework), the country is by far the most integrated into the Alliance’s structures. The course was set in the 1950s. Chancellor Konrad Adenauer’s Secretary of Defence Franz-Josef Strauss explained: “The Bundeswehr will no longer be, and will not be able to be, the instrument of a national power policy, since the federal government deliberately integrated its armed forces into a multinational system. The Ministry of Defence and the Army Leadership will only function as NATO’s implementing organs.”
Despite reunification and the end of the Cold War, not much has changed in this regard. Johannes Bohnen—co-founder of the Atlantic Initiative in support of the German-American foreign policy bond—underscores: “When Germany’s geo-strategic position altered, Bonn opted convincingly and promptly in favor of continuity by remaining fully committed to its military integration in NATO. The scope and quality of the Bundeswehr’s integration and capabilities have prevented the Federal Republic from conducting a more autonomous defence policy, even since 1989.” Two decades later, Hubert Védrine commented with a mix of disdain and despair: “There is no German Army, there is only a sort of German Department of the Western army. Germany is 99% integrated in the NATO system, it does not have any room for maneuver. This is why they profess a strictly NATO-centered vision, even more rigidly than what comes from Washington.”
Beyond the inherited organizational matrix, there are two decisive political motives behind Germany’s fervent Atlanticism. First, Berlin believes that the more it pledges allegiance to the United States and the more it champions NATO’s primacy in European defense, the more forgiving Washington will be, in exchange, when it comes to occasional German misdemeanors in the economic field (whether it is energy supplies from Moscow or trade relations with Beijing). Second, keeping the United States massively engaged in Europe and acclaiming Washington as the continent’s sole and ultimate defense guarantor also ensures that French comparative advantages in the military arena—battle-seasoned soldiers, all-spectrum armaments sector, and an independent nuclear force—do not seriously come into play within the intra-European power game.
What might seem at first very convenient for Washington, however, is not necessarily that beneficial in the long run. Self-cultivated “dependency” can produce partners out of weakness, but not strong, steadfast allies. The sense of having one’s “fate in its own hands”—in other words, autonomy—is the eternal key driver behind meaningful defense-related efforts and coherent policies. Talking about the risks of “integration,” namely within NATO under U.S. leadership, de Gaulle pointed out: “The integrated country is set to lose interest in its national defense since it is not responsible for it. As a result, the entire Alliance is weakened.” More than just free riding and trying to save money, more than simply “being from Venus” (instead of Mars), and reveling in a pacifist ideology, this abandonment of autonomy is the profound, unspoken explanation for most European Allies’ chronic wishy-washiness in the security realm. As long as Germany cultivates ultra-Atlanticism in the defense field, Berlin is an impediment to Europe “standing on its own feet,” thereby—despite appearances and short-term advantages—making it a liability for the United States.
The views expressed in this article are those of the authors alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.