Be ‘mein’ valentine: Merkel and Macron renew their ‘vows’ with Aachen treaty, but some critique the coupling

Macron hugs Merkel.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron attend a signing of a new agreement on bilateral cooperation and integration, known as Treaty of Aachen, in Aachen, Germany, Jan. 22, 2019. 

Wolfgang Rattay/Reuters

Ah, political love is in the air. 

Bromances between leaders remains a surprisingly crucial part of diplomacy. Think of Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev's walk in the woods, or George W. Bush's telephone chats with Tony Blair.

During the Cold War, Kremlinologists timed the kisses exchanged between Warsaw Pact leaders (a holdover from an Orthodox custom at Easter), to measure how close their governments were.

Donald Trump has met Vladimir Putin five times, without aides other than translators, or notes being taken. (Lovers love privacy — "Speak low, if you speak love," counseled Don Pedro in William Shakespeare's "Much Ado About Nothing.") 

They may be an odd couple — the hysterical, publicity-seeking Twitterer-in-Chief and the dully bureaucratic former spymaster — but during his last European trip, Trump praised Putin as "extremely strong and powerful," while calling the EU a foe of America and toying aloud with leaving NATO.

And bromance blooms elsewhere, too.

Italy's right-wing Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini doesn't get on with many people, but he bonded with Poland's right-wing Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki. In January, the two began speaking of a Polish-Italian axis and jointly leading a populist "European Spring."

But the one political affair everyone’s got their eyes on? German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron. As turmoil churns in European politics, their recent public display of commitment has drawn both praise and critique. 

Be 'mein'

On Jan. 22, Merkel and Macron stood underneath an elaborate coat of arms in the historic Coronation Hall in Aachen, Germany, and signed the Aachen Treaty, essentially renewing the countries' “wedding vows” from the 1963 bilateral Élysée Treaty

The signing comes amidst an uncertain political environment in Europe. It is a gambit that simultaneously responds to Brexit and the rise of the populist movements like the right-wing gilets jaunes (yellow vests) in France and Alternative für Deutschland in Germany, while Putin’s Russia rises in the east and Trump’s America retreats to the west.

Related: Parisians don red scarves calling for end to yellow vest violence

The treaty officially commits Europe’s two largest countries to close coordination and joint positions in defense and foreign affairs, sending the message that Germany and France stand united in the midst of political upheaval in Europe.

But others are not so convinced that the pairing is a natural fit. 

“I don’t want to say the whole treaty is just rubbish — just it could’ve been more ambitious than it actually is. The reality is that France and Germany just don’t go together very well. In many of these fields, other partners in Europe actually are more suitable for both pairs.”

Barbara Kunz, research fellow at the Institut Français des Relations Internationales

The treaty adds new purposeto a bilateral relationship that has become “fatigued, where everything is very, very institutional, summits between ministers,” says Jacques Maire, vice president of France's National Assembly foreign affairs committee.

And for some critics, French and German unity could have meant much more. 

“I don’t want to say the whole treaty is just rubbish — just it could’ve been more ambitious than it actually is,” says Barbara Kunz, a research fellow in Franco-German studies at the Institut Français des Relations Internationales, a Paris think tank.

The reality, she says, is that “France and Germany just don’t go together very well. In many of these fields, other partners in Europe actually are more suitable for both pairs.”

“I think it is very courageous to sign this treaty, in comparison with Brexit, with nationalism, with international tension,” says Laëtitia Saint-Paul, now Macron’s whip on the French legislature’s foreign affairs panel. Saint-Paul previously commanded a company in the joint Franco-German brigade as an army major.

The binational brigade, a mechanized infantry formation of about 6,000 created in 1989, has participated in NATO and EU peacekeeping missions together in Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Mali.

The treaty promises more of this type of defense cooperation, and pledges to foster “a common culture” and joint deployments between French and German armed forces, developing a common approach to arms exports, and acting “jointly in all cases where this is possible.”

It also hopes to restart the project of European integration, recently called into question by Brexit, by bringing the EU’s two largest members closer together, first. 

The two countries can “take an initiative in convergence in the Germany-France relationship, as a sort of drive toward a new European convergence.”

Sylvain Waserman, vice president of France's Assemblée Nationale

With 28 member EU member states (or 27 without the UK), “it’s probably too late … to decide things at the European level — it’s probably too late [with] 19 [members] in the Eurozone,” says Sylvain Waserman, vice president of France’s National Assembly. But, he says, it's not too late for the two countries to “take an initiative in convergence in the Germany-France relationship, as a sort of drive toward a new European convergence.” 

But Germany’s postwar habit of exercising restraint on the international stage still has substantial domestic support.

Fifty-two percent of Germans think their country should show prudence, according to a survey by the Körber Foundation, and 53 percent didn't think Germany should provide military force to a NATO ally that was attacked by Russia, says the Pew Research Foundation.

And in line with public opinion, Germany’s military preparedness is poor.  

New recruits have to wait 45 weeks for their uniforms, and only 39 of Germany’s 128 fighter jets and five helicopters are deployable, says a report by Hans-Peter Bartels, commissioner for defense oversight for the German Bundestag, or parliament.

But committing to a joint position on each global issue, argues Maire, will coax Germany to carry more weight on the global stage.

Expectation management

Domestic opponents of the two leaders argue the treaty is a vast giveaway of national sovereignty.

Marine Le Pen, leader of France’s right-wing Rassemblement National, or National Rally, party, posted a video online accusing Macron of treason.

She also incorrectly stated the treaty committed France to transfer its permanent United Nations Security Council seat to Germany. (It instead says a German seat on the council is merely “a priority of Franco-German diplomacy.”)

Meanwhile in Germany, Alternative für Deutschland’s Alexander Gauland said, “We don’t want Macron to renovate his country with German money.” And Italy’s Salvini repeated promises in recent weeks to challenge the “Franco-German motor” with his Euroskeptic “Italian-Polish axis.” 

“The problem is that the new treaty doesn’t directly deal of itself with the real issues that are of concern right now — migration, right-wing revival, how to ginger up the euro."

Anne Deighton, Wolfson College fellow, Oxford University

But other critics say the treaty’s problem is that it addresses the wrong issues, or dodges the fact each country may find better-aligned partners elsewhere.

“The problem is that the new treaty doesn’t directly deal of itself with the real issues that are of concern right now — migration, right-wing revival, how to ginger up the euro,” says Anne Deighton, a fellow at Wolfson College, University of Oxford, who specializes in European international affairs history. “[They’re] not going to share nukes, and a European army is not likely.” More coordination might take place among officers, however. 

“Think back to the Élysée Treaty,” she adds, referring to the agreement between French President Charles de Gaulle and German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer made in January 1963, which pledged the countries to a close relationship and frequent high-level dialogue on issues including defense and foreign affairs. “What really came out of that in the long term was better coordination between the civil servants” in Paris and Bonn, she says.

Aligned partners? 

The Netherlands and northern European countries may be better partners for Germany on Eurozone-related matters. These countries share the view that the Eurozone should pursue the completion of a capital markets union. France argues instead for deeper integration, through a single Eurozone finance ministry or budget.

Britain, meanwhile, is a more natural partner for France on defense cooperation. The two countries have cooperated in the past year in military operations in Iraq, Syria and Mali, in addition to maritime operations in the Channel and Atlantic.

“Many things the French want are just not on Germany’s agenda — France really wants support in African operations fighting terrorism, this isn’t a German priority,” Kunz says.

France’s anti-terrorism G5 Sahel force of up to 5,000 troops in Mali, Burkina Faso, Chad, Mauritania and Niger is only the beginning of a regional force that would provide security and conduct anti-jihadist operations. 

France has “a completely different approach to migration, the refugee crisis, nuclear energy and operations against ISIS in the Sahara,” agrees Friedrich Haas, a former German air force officer, now working as an international security consultant in North Rhine-Westphalia.

Germany’s recent involvement in Africa has been limited to development aid and promises of private investment.

“Berlin doesn't understand Africa at all and has no strategy for foreign and security policy,” he says.

German politics suffers from a lack of foreign policy expertise, Haas argues.

With the coalition between Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union and its Bavarian ally, the Christian Social Union, now in its 14th year of government, politicians of Germany’s governing parties generally have spent their prior lives focusing on local issues of city and state importance.

“There are almost no real foreign and security experts among the members of the Bundestag,” says Haas, “and so the so far right and left gain more power, because all this incompetence is so obvious for the electorate.”

Meanwhile, the treaty’s long-term influence is likely to be gradual and at lower levels: more exchanges between civil servants, members of the armed forces and parliamentarians, more cooperation in border areas, and a commitment to harmonizing legislation around small business and bankruptcy.

This, perhaps, isn’t high politics.

But, says Kunz, “With populism everywhere, and Brexit, even just reiterating the continued will to cooperate — that also is a message.”