ARTICLE | Mercron: The Franco-German Tandem Is Back – On Berlin’s Terms

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They haven’t done a thing, but “Mercron” (Merkel & Macron) is everybody’s latest buzzword. The Franco-German engine is back, so you hear all over the place, after the overwhelming victory of Emmanuel Macron in both presidential and parliamentary elections. Europe is in progress mode again. So far, so good. Just to be clear: it’s splendid that Macron has won these elections and it is good that he is explicitly pro-Europe. Yes, this changes the political climate, and, after a prolonged dismal period, there is again something like hope in the European arena. But what tandem, what for and what is in it for the rest of Europe?

The sheer fact that “Mercron” emerges as the name of the game might point in a problematic direction. The last conjoined Franco-German name was “Merkozy” (“Merkollande” didn’t even take place, due to the political invisibility of François Hollande). Yet, “Merkozy” depicted Nicolas Sarkorzy as Merkel’s little poodle, especially in decisions on the Eurocrisis: austerity and nothing else. Hence, one would not really wish a poodle role for smart, energetic and handsome Emmanuel Macron, who has just saved France from being governed by Marine Le Pen. Interestingly enough, nobody ever tried “Gaullauer”, “Schmidestaing” or “Mittekohl”.  And probably for good reason, a fusion or merger was never the essence of a Franco-German tandem for Europe. The essence was always to bring the two partners, which come from a very different angle of history, politics, economy and society, together in a compromise, with a visible ‘do-ut-des’ structure.

If France and Germany can agree, all of Europe can agree. Then there is progress for Europe, because two very different political and economic cultures are mirrored in the agreement, so that all countries of Europe, more precisely of the Eurozone, can find their place and space within this agreement. That is what one can read in the books of all the great masters of Franco-German relations of the past, from Joseph Rovan to Alfred Grosser, en passant via Stanley Hoffmann from Harvard, who coined the expression “symmetry through asymmetry” as a prototypical Franco-German agreement, a wording, which is in nearly every textbook on Franco-German relations. Note: that the French partner for Germany is the one that pleases Germany most was never in the equation.

This is how the Treaty of Rome was built (with its inherent subtext of ‘industry for Germany’ and ‘agriculture for France’); this is how the common market and the  EU budget were established, with a lot in it for both, France (agricultural subsidies) and Germany (markets); and this is how finally the single currency was established, with – let’s not forget – a lot of fighting between France and Germany about the  currency’s name, the location of the central bank and its mandate in the 90s. For a taste of history on this, one may wish to re-read the book “La guerre de sept ans” (“The seven-year war”) – note: war (!) – from Pascal Riché, at that point a journalist on Libération, on creating the euro. In other words: Franco-German relations were rarely rosy or about consensus, but more about very conflicting views. The same, by the way, applied in the field of security and defense policy, where the French wish for a more autonomous and independent European policy always stood in sharp contrast to the German view that European security and defense policy must be embedded in NATO.

So the question is whether “Mercron” is a good thing and what it might lead to. The biggest problem seems to be the sequencing in which Macron wishes and is able to tackle the Bermuda triangle he is in: unite or at least appease the left (remember, Macron is a “progressive” social-liberal and comes from the socialist party or PS); carry out labor market and other liberalization reforms and strike a Franco-German deal on changing the Eurozone, meaning enhance its fiscal capacity, its governance mechanisms (“Euro-Finance minister”) and its parliamentary accountability/control (“Eurozone-Parliament”). None of these proposals, which Macron has already announced and presented in the run-up to his election, are new; none of them are heretical. Most of them can be found already in the ‘Five Presidents Report of the EU’ on GMEU (“Genuine Monetary and Economic Union”) from December 2012 and its updated version of June 2015. Macron presented very similar ideas when visiting Berlin in January 2017; and repeated them when meeting Merkel after his election. The blueprint for what he aspires to create on the legitimacy side for the Eurozone can be found in the French booklet “Traité pour la democratization de l’Europe”, which just has been published by Editions Seuil and set out here too. France definitely wants to overcome the so-called democratic deficit of the Eurozone and rightly so.

The very fact that none of these overdue reforms of the Eurozone took place in the last five years of the crisis, between 2012 and 2017, contributed to the economic downturn in France, the demise of the left and the rise of Marine Le Pen. Hollande already tried to push through some of these points in 2012-2013, e.g. when he proposed a political union to Germany in May 2013 – but failed. Every attempt to get a softening of the German model for running the Eurozone was rebuffed. In the words of Giorgio Agamben, who wrote a hawkish article at the time: the “Latin empire” was smashed. France was unable to defend, as lead country, Southern interests in Europe.

Macron would be well-advised to not repeat this mistake.  He needs a European deal first, then he can hopefully appease the Left and this creates room for maneuver for some domestic reforms. Yet, this is precisely not what seems to be happening. Germany, bound by its own elections, is again building up a front against the myth of ‘transfer union’, as if nothing had happened in Europe in recent years.  Merkel will have a hard time to make her CDU follow her in into an accommodating Franco-German deal, especially if, with one eye, she bets on a coalition with the neoliberal FDP. In accepting to present concrete results on reforms and liberalization at home first, before Germany feels inclined to reconsider the governance of the Eurozone, Macron has de facto surrendered to German dominance and accepted that he needs to do his ‘homework’ before returning, after the German elections, to the European negotiating table. Why homework, is the question, and who would judge them as successful? And what if the ‘homework’ delivery fails, because half of France descends on the streets, à la rentrée, as Macron may have the parliament, but perhaps not the majority of the French population behind him? Will “Mercron” and the moment of hope for Europe then be over in the blink of an eye. Will Germany then argue that, once again, the French didn’t get their act together? Or will it then be time to rediscover the virtue of good old Franco-German relations, which is that there must be something in it for France in the way that Europe functions?

The perhaps biggest task of Macron – Macron without any Merkel – might be to resist the notion that Berlin becomes nolens volens the hidden capital of Europe. He’s the only one who can do this and this might be his biggest service to Europe, instead of going for “Mercron”. The time has come to realize that Europe is bigger than Germany and that the Eurozone has to be newly designed in a democratic and social way which goes far beyond Franco-German liaisons amoureuses.

About Ulrike Guerot

Founder and director of the European Democracy Lab. Formerly, inter alia, at the European Council on Foreign Relations, Senior Research Fellow and Head of the Berlin Office, and Senior Transatlantic Fellow with the German Marshall Fund .

Originally published on Social Europe