A London drawing-room recently witnessed a moving little ceremony. A senior diplomat from the French Embassy had the task of conferring a decoration - the Légion d’honneur - on his counterpart from the German Embassy: remarkably, the Frenchman made his short speech in fluent German, and the German responded in flawless French. This was a good example of the “symbolic acts and practices”, as Ulrich Krotz and Joachim Schild call them in their stimulating study, that form part of a determined Franco- German effort to create an indissoluble partnership.
As the authors rightly observe, much of the vast literature on the structure and functioning of the European Union focuses either on the “Brussels” institutions at the centre, or on the attitudes and policies of individual member-state capitals - Paris, Berlin or London - or, of course, on the interactions between the centre and these national “actors”, considered sometimes individually and sometimes in shifting groups. The originality of the approach adopted by Krotz and Schild is their insistence that these conventional levels of analysis miss a most important element in the EU’s decision-making process: the fact that two key member states, by coordinating their policies as systematically as possible, have for many years been able to form a power centre exercising great influence on what the EU agrees to do or not to do.
Two key member states, by coordinating their policies as systematically as possible, have for many years been able to form a power centre exercising great influence on what the EU agrees to do or not to do
There are numerous studies of the EU’s Franco-German “tandem”, “motor” or “axis” and its central role in Europe’s integration that have chronicled and explained events thoroughly, but they have offered no analysis as precise or as systematic as this of how exactly the “embedded bilateralism” between Paris and Bonn/Berlin works, and why it is often (although by no means always) effective.
The authors group their account of the basic factors at work into three areas of activity. First, there has been the “regularized intergovernmentalism” stemming from the Elysée Treaty signed by Chancellor Konrad Adenauer and President Charles de Gaulle in 1963, involving almost incessant bilateral summit meetings and contacts, coordination between French and German government departments, and long-term exchanges of civil servants. Second, the two governments have assiduously cultivated “Carolingian symbols and meaning”: the heavily stressed public celebration of anniversaries of Franco-German agreements, and special events such as the 1978 visit by Valéry Giscard d’Estaing and Helmut Schmidt to the tomb of Charlemagne or François Mitterrand’s and Helmut Kohl’s holding of hands at Verdun in 1984. And third, there has been the necessary growth of the partnership’s bottom-up “parapublic underpinning”: the whole array of town-twinnings, youth exchanges, media cooperation, cultural awards and language teaching.
Krotz and Schild survey the Franco-German role in designing and developing the EU’s institutions, in enlarging its membership, in introducing the euro, in facing the current financial crisis, and in trying to give “Europe” a voice in world affairs. The record shows how the “embedded” structure of the relationship has often provided a basis for the two partners, despite their intrinsic differences, to reach common positions and give a lead to the EU as a whole.
Regrettably, the book’s limited length (fewer than 250 pages of text) prevents the authors from developing their arguments as fully as they deserve, from doing justice to the important phase of Franco-German reconciliation from 1950 to 1958, and from giving non-specialist readers more than minimal information on events and individuals. It is also disconcerting to find a publication straight from a leading British university press - and not from this press’ New York branch - using American spelling and grammar (especially split infinitives). Overall, however, this significant work provokes reflection, and marks a valuable step forward in the study of the EU.
Shaping Europe: France, Germany and Embedded Bilateralism from the Elysée Treaty to Twenty-First Century Politics
By Ulrich Krotz and Joachim Schild
Oxford University Press, 368pp, £55.00
Published 20 December 2012