Since the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, many commentators and analysts of European politics have been arguing that the “heart of the EU” was moving eastward. This analysis gained ground as Central and Eastern European (CEE) countries increased their political, financial, and military support to Ukraine, while France and Germany, the “historical leaders” of the European Union, have been criticized for what has been perceived as a timid and disappointing level of assistance. Many, especially in the East, believe that the power dynamics are profoundly shifting in Europe and that the aftermath of the war (assuming Ukraine wins) will only confirm it. But do these evolutions necessarily imply that the Franco-German tandem is losing its role as Europe’s leaders?
A tandem at the heart of Europe?
Before answering this important question, it is necessary to explain in brief how, and most importantly why, France and Germany came to form a tandem at the forefront of what the European Union is today.
At the end of World War II, having fought two of the most devastating wars in European history in less than three decades, France and Germany (or rather West Germany) decided that a rapprochement was the only way to avoid further bloodshed, “making war not only unthinkable but materially impossible” in the words of former French Foreign Minister Robert Schuman. In 1963, the Elysée Treaty signed by De Gaulle and Adenauer sealed the Franco-German reconciliation and, since then, due to their overwhelming political and economic weight in Europe, the Franco-German tandem has been leading the process of European integration. Germany’s economic and industrial domination, associated with France’s economic strength and special political position, through its seat at the UN Security Council, its nuclear weapons and its vast diplomatic network, have allowed both countries to exercise natural leadership. Hence, many important European agreements and initiatives have been primarily the product of Franco-German cooperation over the last decades (the latest example being the 2020 Covid-19 Recovery Plan).
In recent years, the economic imbalance within the tandem has grown, and as an economic power will likely remain the main source of power in the EU (and of the EU), some have argued that Germany could take over as the sole leader of Europe. But Germany needs the political weight of France to assume leadership, just as France needs the economic might of Germany: their European leadership is interdependent. Furthermore, both countries exert influence over, and can foster unity in, different parts of Europe. While Germany is generally more successful in Northern, Central and, to a lesser extent, Eastern Europe, France’s leadership tends to be more appreciated by Southern European countries, especially for its resistance to budget discipline. Together, they can gather support for policies from all parts of Europe. In short, the Franco-German tandem is the leading force of the EU, and, just like a tandem bicycle, it needs both members to pedal together to make it go forward.
But since February 24, 2022 – the date of the Russian invasion of Ukraine -- tensions in the tandem have arisen that have affected the whole European political equilibrium. What were merely diverging opinions before the war became focal points of disagreement, especially in the critical domains of energy and defense, where France and Germany have different perspectives. The detailed nature of these disagreements will not be addressed here, as much has been written on the topic, but it should be stressed that France and Germany have rarely, since 1963, been torn further apart. These tensions culminated in October 2022 with the delay of a long-anticipated ministerial summit, and they have been exacerbated by the fragile domestic position of both leaders. In Germany, Olaf Scholz’s government is the product of a broad coalition, but the Chancellor’s position has been weakened since Russia’s invasion due to his unpopular response to the surge in inflation and particularly in energy prices, as well as his timid support for Ukraine. In France, Macron’s government has faced similar stress tests, and the French President moreover lost his majority at the Assemblée Nationale in June 2022. Both leaders therefore face a mix of high expectations and high internal political pressures, reinforcing the preeminence of national interests over European interests, and over the tandem itself. This has been especially true for Germany, and Scholz’s decision to go to Beijing last December without Macron (despite the latter’s suggestion of a joint visit), but accompanied by many German industrials and businessmen, illustrates the differing interests both countries have on the international stage.
These bilateral tensions have weakened the capacity for France and Germany to present a common face as leaders of the European Union even as it confronts the most important security challenge since its creation. And as in physics, in politics, voids need to be filled.
Political momentum in the East
In the face of the Russian war of aggression, this void has been filled by CEE countries, the closest to Ukraine both historically and geographically. Most of these countries, just like Ukraine, had spent decades under Russian domination before the collapse of the USSR, and they were wary of Russian ambitions in what it calls its “near abroad.” On the morning of February 24, they felt they had been struck by Cassandra’s curse after having been warned for years about the aggressive views of Vladimir Putin. In the East, many criticized French and German attitudes over the past ten years, in particular Angela Merkel’s insistence on pursuing the Nord-Stream 2 project despite Russia’s annexation of Crimea, or Macron’s desire to pursue better relations with Moscow as part of his vision for European strategic autonomy. These criticisms haven’t stopped as France and Germany’s responses to the invasion have been labeled as timid, even ambiguous. Notably, Scholz’s initial refusal to send Leopard-2 tanks to Ukraine or Macron’s comments about the need “not to humiliate Putin” was very poorly received in Eastern European capitals.
As they had rightfully foreseen the danger Putin represented for peace in Europe, CEE countries have felt empowered with new political legitimacy, giving them room for notable political momentum. Additionally, they have, in relative terms, provided greater support to Ukraine than France or Germany. As an example, 1% of Estonian GDP is now dedicated to supporting Ukraine. The corresponding figure for France and Germany doesn’t reach even 0.1%. Obviously, support is stronger in the East because these countries feel more threatened by Russia for geographical and historical reasons, but this support also brings them three things. First, a feeling of moral superiority reinforces their political legitimacy, as they are doing relatively more than France or Germany for the defense of Europe (one example: Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki labeling Germany’s policy response to the Russian invasion as “selfish”). Second, it gives them political prestige and credibility in Europe to the detriment of France and Germany, as the latter has at times made empty promises or even seemed complacent toward Putin. Third, as Eastern Europe manages to effectively assist Ukraine and to present itself as a vocal political opponent to Russia, it gives the impression that it has agency within the EU and that the leadership, or support, of Western European countries is not a precondition to their exercise of power. All these elements, taken together, have helped spread the view that the “heart of Europe” has moved eastward and that new leaders from the eastern periphery were appearing on the European political scene.
But when analyzing these European power dynamics, another actor needs to be mentioned to understand the broader picture: the United States. The United States has been by far the most supportive country of Ukraine, and it is obvious that without US military, financial, political, and intelligence support (transferred through Eastern Europe), the war might have ended long ago. The US has also supported Eastern European initiatives. Among CEE countries, Poland stands out -- Joe Biden has visited Warsaw twice in less than a year. Emboldened by the US support, Poland and other CEE countries have felt more comfortable to contest the Franco-German leadership. The US, for its part, sees the war in Ukraine as an opportunity to maintain its grip on the EU by playing on the rivalry between “Old Europe” (comprising Western European countries) and “New Europe” (the CEE countries). In view of its global confrontation with China, this provides a way to slow the process of European autonomy and to prevent the rise of a “third pole,” which could happen only if Europeans are united and agree to move in the same direction.
But as the tandem is contested, one must ask if any country other than France and Germany, or any group of countries (more substantial than the CEE countries), could realistically assume leadership in Europe beyond the perspective of the war in Ukraine.
There are few realistic alternatives to the Franco-German tandem in leading Europe. This can be explained by two factors, beginning with economic strength. In that regard, no European country can compare to France or Germany, with respectively the seventh and fourth largest GDP in the world. Together, the two countries represent 42% of the EU’s total GDP and close to 50% of the Eurozone’s. It is unimaginable that any European country could contest Franco-German leadership on economic grounds. Furthermore, most CEE economies largely depend on Western European markets and investments, notably on German capital, and this dependence restricts their ability to effectively contest the Franco-German tandem. Second, and perhaps most importantly in the context of this article: there does not exist any coherent political entity which could, or even would seek to, assume political leadership in Europe. The most well-known, the Visegrad group, is not a credible political option as two of its four members, Poland and Hungary, are under EU scrutiny for breaking the rule of law, and as the conservative and far-right tendencies of these two countries also prevent them from having a voice resonating with all EU member states. In Hungary, Viktor Orban has, moreover, become the embodiment of illiberal democracy, and his more than ambiguous position regarding the war in Ukraine has further isolated him from his European counterparts. Another possibility among CEE countries would be the Three Seas Initiative, a forum created in 2016 by 12 European states running from the Baltic to the Adriatic and Black Sea, and aiming to tackle, through dialogue, regional issues affecting them. But this forum is not designed as a platform meant to assume any form of Europe-wide leadership. And even if it wanted to do so, it is likely that the inherent divergence in national interests among these 12 states would seriously hamper their capacity to act in coordination as a driving force in the EU.
In Western Europe, no country or group of countries presents itself as an alternative to Franco-German leadership, but some acknowledge that the importance of the tandem in EU politics needs to be rethought.
So, once it is acknowledged that France and Germany cannot be left out of European leadership, an alternative to the Franco-German tandem might be to include other countries to form a new group at the forefront of the EU. But then comes the delicate question: who should be included?
Some argue that Poland could represent the interests of Eastern European countries. A format for cooperation already exists: the triangle of Weimar, a grouping of France, Germany, and Poland. But similar problems quickly arise: Poland has only the EU’s sixth-largest GDP (behind not just France and Germany but also Italy, Spain, and the Netherlands), and recent reforms of its judicial system have raised concerns over the independence of its judiciary and the separation of powers. Initiatives to reanimate the triangle are underway, but it is unlikely to assume a leadership role replacing the Franco-German tandem in the foreseeable future, for the strength disparity between its three members is too important to constitute a coherent and balanced leading force.
Others have claimed that the EU should return to its roots and that a joint leadership of the six founding members with Spain should be the starting point of a renewed European leadership. But such a solution is too Western-oriented and fails to take into account the political momentum in the East, risking to create a fracture between the “two Europes.”
A ‘doomed’ tandem?
The lack of alternatives to Franco-German leadership, both in economic strength and political credibility, leads to the conclusion that the tandem is likely to remain the “motor” of Europe after the war (if the EU survives this stress test). France and Germany are “doomed” to lead Europe, and they are doomed to do so together. But the postwar Franco-German tandem will very likely be different and act differently from the one which existed before the war. It will be different because France and Germany will have to solve at least some of their tensions before functioning together again, and this can happen only with a rethinking of the tandem itself. To get over disagreements and misunderstandings, France’s illusion about the “Franco-German couple” as the continuation of French interests by other means, and Germany’s selfish tendencies, will first have to be questioned. The tandem will also act differently because other countries, especially in the East, will increasingly question their dual leadership. New formats of cooperation and negotiation, and new or revived alliances will likely appear in Europe as a result of these political dynamics. France and Germany will need to work more closely with European partners and take into greater consideration the aspirations of CEE countries, but fundamental geopolitical realities will not change, and the Franco-German tandem will remain the leading force of the EU.
If France and Germany do not manage to overcome their disagreements, or if they do not change the nature of their leadership of the EU, Europeans will have reasons to be worried for the prospects of European integration. Even Poland and the Baltic states (which are eager today to contest France and Germany’s leadership) should be worried, as a functioning EU is the greatest – arguably the only – guarantor of future prosperity for their respective economies. The EU could also become critical for their security as the US will at some point disengage itself from Eastern Europe (as Florida governor and potential Republican presidential candidate Ron DeSantis argues it should already be doing) to pivot towards the Asia-Pacific. When that happens, if Russia is still a threat to European security, the EU, and notably the Franco-German tandem, could ironically become their greatest security assurance. Failing to acknowledge these geopolitical realities and shifting dynamics could have dramatic outcomes for France and Germany, but more broadly for the EU, given the massive global challenges certain to arise in the coming years.
Clément Masselin is a Sciences Po-Paris School of International Affairs student currently pursuing a Master in International Governance and Diplomacy. His main areas of focus are nuclear weapons policies and European Affairs. As recognition of his work, he was chosen to be a panel presenter during the 2023 Youth and Leaders Summit held by PSIA in Paris. He is a member of the Nicholas Spykman International Center for Geopolitical Analysis.