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Is the Franco-German engine of European integration restarting?

The Conference on the Future of Europe has concluded! 

The largest ever pan-European consultation with citizens presented its final report in the European Parliament on Europe Day, 9 May 2022. In response, French President Emmanuel Macron has said he will, at the June European Council Summit of EU leaders, raise the possibility a constitutional convention to discuss treaty change.

Following Macron’s remarks, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz called the German-French partnership “more important than ever as a motor and source of inspiration for the European project”. The two countries have pledged a joint consultation of ministers on the future of European integration, to be held in July following French legislative elections, so Paris and Berlin can adopt “one voice” on European reform.

On 28 April 2022, shortly after the French Presidential elections, we held an online panel discussion in German, with politicians and experts to discuss the future of Franco-German cooperation. Taking part were:

What do our readers think?

The panel discussion itself was in German, but we’ve translated one question we received from Kostian into English for all you non-German speakers:

💬 Europe is in the midst of a severe energy crisis where prices are increasing. France is ramping up its nuclear power as Germany is closing down their nuclear power plants. Does this show that there is not a unified approach between two of the most important EU countries when we talk about energy policies? Does that affect the EU Green Deal and the fight against climate change overall?

We had a response during the panel to this question from Prof. Dr. Gisela Müller-Brandeck-Bocquet, Professor of Political Science at the University of Würzburg, who said:

💬 First of all, we must note that the specific energy mix that a Member State chooses is a national decision. As I said earlier, it is impossible to imagine countries that are more opposed to each other than Germany and France, and this is also evident in energy policy. Recently, we had the very controversial decision of the Commission to designate nuclear energy and gas as bridging technologies, i.e., in a way, as sustainable energy sources. Ms. Barley can certainly tell you a thing or two about how controversial this decision was and how much the implementation of this decision will continue to cause friction between Germany and France in the future.

In the context of the war in Ukraine – and accelerated by it – it now really does look as if the energy transition must be an absolute priority in European action in the coming months. This means not only reducing emissions in the sense of fighting climate change, but also promoting independence in the sense of the EU’s strategic sovereignty. And I have the impression that right now the opinion is: ‘Everything that annoys Putin; everything that promotes reductions in gas and oil imports is welcome at the moment’.

I would say that Macron is really lucky that the very controversial decision in Germany to see nuclear energy as a bridge to sustainability – that is very difficult for a German Social Democrat or Green to bear – is somewhat lost in this great challenge. And I would also say that the EU must become even more united. But that would mean that the decision on the energy mix would not have to remain exclusively in the hands of the nation state. Fine, but can any of you imagine that we – amid the current crisis – change the treaties? That is beyond my European political imagination!

So I think that we will have to live with these contradictions and tensions for some time to come. I don’t see any way out of it. I would only refer again to the priority: We must get rid of CO2 emissions, we have to get rid of our dependence on energy imports, and then, in the spirit of great pragmatism, we might also have to put up with the nuclear power plants and the restarted German coal-fired power plants – that is also part of the truth. I don’t see much more progress in terms of new competences for the EU.

We also had a response to Kostian from German Christian Democratic MEP Dr. Andreas Schwab:

💬 The caution advised by Mrs. Müller-Brandeck-Bocquet can only be objectively supported. That is also the first point I would like to make. I believe that everyone who deals with Franco-German relations comes to reflective conclusions. Just like Mrs. Müller-Brandeck-Bocquet. But there are also those who, in this context, keep drawing attention to themselves with allegations that Mrs. von der Leyen is being used by Mr. Macron to weaken Germany. There is a whole series of rather absurd voices on Franco-German relations that we do not mention here. Therefore, I would like to do so. That is simply nonsense! We talk about all issues, even in a party-political controversial way, but in the end, we try to come to a solution in which both countries and all citizens from Germany and France and Europe succeed.

In this respect, one must understand Mrs. Müller-Brandeck-Bocquet’s cautious assessment. Of course, the French also want to manage their energy supply well. And they understand that the Germans no longer want nuclear power. But, of course, they say: ‘If the gas is to flow from Russia, there must be an alternative. And you can’t be too dogmatic about that, at least for a transitional period. In this respect, I believe that the core problem of the taxonomy decision is that the expansion between the connectors of the member states is not massively expanded at the same time. For only then does a uniformity of access to the capital markets make sense if the energy can actually flow without problems. And we have to push the French a little harder to build more interconnectors to Spain and Germany. There is European funding for this. But you have to be realistic about it. More needs to happen here.

Ms. Barley rightly pointed out that this recovery package was a big step. And as much as we need to praise Scholz and Merkel on the one hand and Macron on the other, it must of course be said that the agreement was an agreement between the governments. Parliamentarians would like it if parliaments were even more involved in this. In this respect, this Franco-German cooperation is incredibly important, but of course, when push comes to shove, in recent years – and I say this deliberately provocatively – it has been more intergovernmental than genuine European parliamentary cooperation. So, we must tackle this in Berlin, where most colleagues are not so keen on changing anything.

Is the Franco-German engine of European integration restarting? 

Or do differences in areas such as energy policy show that a united approach to EU reform is impossible? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!

Image Credits: Bundesregierung/Bergmann

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