The Elysée Treaty at 50: Golden Anniversary, Gilded Age?

Anniversaries are special occasions, not least because they afford a chance to reflect upon the past and project hopes into the future. This is perhaps particularly true of the 50th anniversary of the Elysée Treaty. Signed on the 22nd of January 1963, it not only sealed the remarkably short process of reconciliation and rapprochement between France and Germany after World War II, a condition vital to a lasting peace in Western Europe, it also marked the beginning of a phase of unprecedented bilateral cooperation between the two nations, paving the way for European integration.

Image courtesy of Garitan, © 2012, some rights reserved.
Image courtesy of Garitan, © 2012, some rights reserved.

Some 70 years ago, nothing seemed more unlikely than an entente between the two nations. For centuries, Europe had been a theatre of constant warfare and bloodshed, a “territory of discord and jealousy” where “the Latins despise[d] the Germanics” and the “Germanics despise[d] the Latins”[1]. Lying at the fault line between these two civilisations, the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation and the Kingdom of France were perpetually at odds with one another. With the rise of the nation-state the traditional Franco-German antagonism underwent an inexorable upward spiral, culminating in two devastating world wars, by far the deadliest conflicts in the history of humankind.

It was only then that both nations, united by a common desire to prevent future bloodshed, initiated a process of reconciliation in the hope of reducing the cultural gulf that separated them. Much was to be done. After all, each nation represented a completely different mode of thought and model of organisation. Whether in the field of geography, economy, politics or religion, the contrast could not be have been more stark. Due to its geographical position on the periphery of continental Europe and its Latin heritage, France is traditionally more closely connected with its Southern neighbours. Germany, in turn, at the heart of central Europe, is naturally oriented towards the East. Furthermore, both nations embody two “radically opposed conceptions of the state”[2]: Whilst France continues to be highly centralised and hierarchical, Germany is organised as a federal state. Economically, France has a long-standing tendency towards interventionism, or “dirigisme”, whereas Germany is a fervent advocate of a social free market economy. In addition, and in sharp contrast with Germany, the French Republic is built upon the principle of “separation of church and state”[3]. Not exactly a point of departure that augured well for a close union between the two nations. And yet, the impossible happened: in 1963, formerly hereditary enemies tied the knot.

If it is true that opposites attract, then the Franco-German union could be justly held to be a match made in Heaven. This, of course, does not exclude that the Elysée Treaty was at least as much the result of a purely rational cost-benefit analysis, a marriage of convenience rather than anything else. It allowed De Gaulle to pursue his grand design of establishing, under the aegis of the “Grande Nation”, a “Europe of Nations” as a third pole between East and West. For Germany, in return, it held the promise of regaining international standing.[4]

Whatever the true nature of the couple’s union, there is ample reason to celebrate its golden anniversary. Since 1963, bilateral cooperation has considerably intensified on many levels, mirroring what lies at the core of the treaty. As the treaty stipulates, “(…) the two governments will consult each other, prior to any decision, on all important questions of foreign policy, and in the first place on questions of common interest, with a view to arriving, insofar as possible, at a similar position”.[5]

Accordingly, new bodies for high-level consultation were been created in fields as diverse as defence, culture, environment, economy, and finance.[6] In 2003, the Franco-German Ministerial Council, by now an institution firmly anchored in the Franco-German political landscape, was established in order to ease and further intensify bilateral cooperation. In the field of foreign affairs and defence, there have even been attempts, albeit faint-hearted, at pursuing a common foreign policy. This was most notably the case in 2003 when both nations declared their opposition to war in Iraq.

More importantly perhaps, the Treaty has given rise to a number of bilateral initiatives and projects that were to catalyse the process of European integration. Examples worth mentioning in this respect include EADS and Airbus, the Franco-German Brigade, which prefigured the European Army Corps, the Schengen area, the Euro, and, most recently, ALLEO, a joint high-speed train company.[7] Another key area identified by the Treaty, “culture, education and youth”, has been subject to similar dynamics. It witnessed the creation of ARTE, the standardisation of university degrees and diplomas, the establishment of the Franco-German University, the introduction of the Franco-German Baccalaureate (ABIBAC), as well as the publication of a Franco-German history textbook.[8] The Franco-German Youth Office (OFAJ), established shortly after the Treaty had been signed, has been most successful at entrenching the Franco-German alliance in the minds and hearts of young people. So far, it has enabled nearly 8 million students to participate in cross-border exchanges.[9]

Clearly, much has been accomplished. And yet, the celebrations on the occasion of the couple’s golden anniversary at a time where national egoisms risk to gain the upper hand are far from marking the beginning of a gilded age for Franco-German relations.

Rarely is it mentioned that much of the treaty has remained what the French would call “lettre morte” – yet to be implemented. This may in part be due to the fact that implementing a treaty is a time-consuming business, especially if doing so necessitates a severe curtailment of sovereign prerogatives. On the other hand, this could also be the symptom of a more fundamental problem.

In her analysis of German foreign policy making U. Guérot observes, for instance, that “the time for the (almost) obligatory reference to France is over”[10]. Very much the same could be said about France. “What remains of the Franco-German couple?”[11], that is in fact the question which is presently dominating academic discourse on Franco-German relations.

Of course, the mere fact that the couple’s mutual attraction has worn off a bit in the course of 50 years of marriage does not necessarily mean that a divorce is imminent. Put differently, the current malaise of the Franco-German couple could easily be dismissed as one of the many temporary lows which are undoubtedly common to any functioning marriage. However, there is reason to believe that the near-standstill in the full implementation of the treaty’s stipulations is not temporary. It is neither due to diverging views on how to combat the current economic crisis, nor unbridgeable differences between representatives of both nations. After all, each crisis in Franco-German relations has historically been answered with a revival of the Franco-German project. Indeed, Franco-German cooperation has arguably worked best when the leaders of each nation represented two radically opposed political camps (Giscard D’Estaing-Schmidt, Mitterrand-Kohl, Chirac-Schröder).

If France and Germany are currently showing signs of slowly drifting apart, then it may be due to something else: a change of generation, or the advent of a political elite which is less sensitive to the historical importance of the Franco-German alliance. To François Hollande, born in 1954 and representative of “a generation which takes Europe for granted (…)”[12], Franco-German relations may indeed appear secondary. This may be even truer of German chancellor Merkel who was raised in the former Eastern block.

Needless to say that this evolution is dangerous for several reasons, levels of interdependence between the two partners have never been greater. Both countries are by far each other’s most important trade partner with an estimated trade volume of €167 billion in 2011.[13] Judging from the trend of recent years, this economic interdependence is almost bound to increase in the years to come, not least due to the European Stability Mechanism.

As a guarantor of unprecedented levels of prosperity and peace in (Western) Europe the Franco-German union has simultaneously been the driving force behind European integration: representing 33% of the EU’s population, 36% of the European budget, and 37% of the EU’s GDP[14], the Franco-German couple constitutes the “critical mass which is required to push Europe into action”[15]. If the couple fell apart, it would almost certainly be a deathblow for the European Union.

Without a doubt, the Franco-German couple simply could not afford a divorce. It is therefore all the more important that the celebrations on the occasion of the Elysée Treaty’s 50th anniversary be taken as an occasion to relaunch the project by finally implementing what has, until now, remained an unfulfilled promise. In particular, this would require France and Germany to increase their efforts in the key domains of foreign policy and defence – push for further European integration, speak with one voice in international organisations, and harmonise their defence policies.

Testifying to both nations’ commitment to the Elysée Treaty, the successful implementation of the European Stability Mechanism and the Fiscal Compact in 2012 can be justly held to be a first sign of hope. Nothing is lost yet.

[1] Paul Hazard in T. Ferenczi, Pourquoi l’Europe? (Brussels: André Versaille éditeur, 2008), p. 26

[2] U. Guérot, Germany and Europe : New Deal or Déjà Vu ? in Studies and Research No.55,

[3] the famous Law of 1905

[4] From a French perspective, the Elysée Treaty was not quite a diplomatic triumph, for the Bundestag of the Federal Republic of Germany insisted on the adoption of a preamble to the treaty’s ratification bill which stressed the centrality of the transatlantic alliance in German foreign policy.

[6] see above

[7] see above

[8] see above

[9] see above

[10] U. Guérot, obid.

[11]Claire Demesmay and Cécile Calla, Que reste-t-il du couple franco-allemand? (Paris: La Documentation française, Collection Réflexe Europe « série Débats », 2013)

[12] Hollande in A. Leparmentier, “Le chef de guerre et le prof d’allemand”, Le Monde, 17/01/2012

[15] U. Guérot, obid.

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