Europe facing war: the urgent need for a Franco-German transformation

Bruno Vever


8 July 2022

Speech by Bruno Véver

8 July 2022 at the Franco-German Institute in Ludwigsburg

In a few months, all the European maps have been turned upside down:

  • in Europe by the Russian attack on Ukraine on 23 February, a war that is returning to the continent for the first time in 80 years, apart from the Bosnian interlude,
  • in France by the absence of a new parliamentary majority other than the occasional one for Emmanuel Macron, who has just been re-elected as President of the Republic,
  • in Germany by the obligation for Olaf Scholz's coalition to radically question its defence and energy programme with the war.

The years to come will thus be totally different from those known until now:

  • the NATO Secretary General spoke of the prospect of continued war in Ukraine for years to come,
  • France's political stability will be permanently challenged by its new parliamentary order,
  • the changes in Germany will prove particularly problematic.

Faced with this unprecedented situation, all the issues are unprecedented.


Unprecedented challenges for the European Union

Until now, the construction of Europe has been mainly concerned with building an economic market, providing it with a single currency, and managing it as well as possible both internally and externally. All of this was closely interwoven with a globalisation that we were promised would be happy, or at least promising. The last crises encountered so far, in particular the exit of the United Kingdom and then the covid pandemic, had been managed as best we could. They did not call into question Europe's focus on its economic and social functioning.

The European Union is now faced with a war on its doorstep that is turning the tide. Admittedly, it has been able to react quickly to date, responding to this unprecedented challenge in an equally unprecedented way with unparalleled economic sanctions against the Russian aggressor, unprecedented logistical support and arms deliveries to the Ukrainian aggressor, and the improvised but active reception of millions of refugees.

But this war will last! And while the European Union has just added to the unprecedented by granting candidate country status to Ukraine on 23 June, as well as to Modavia, which is also threatened by Russia, it finds itself, beyond the subtleties of diplomatic language, well and truly involved in an armed conflict, at the limits of direct belligerence. The Kremlin explicitly replied, on the very day that the European Council granted Ukraine its status as a candidate country, that the war would only end when the whole of Ukraine and its government had capitulated!

Russia is thus waging an all-out war against Ukraine, coupled with a direct, assumed and unavoidable confrontation with the European Union. It is multiplying its intimidation of Lithuania, a member of the European Union, which is merely applying European sanctions to control the access corridor to the Kaliningrad enclave. This enclave is increasingly reminiscent of pre-war Danzig. And the methods of this Putin "third empire", worthy heir of those of the Tsars and then the Soviets, are increasingly reminiscent of those of the "Third Reich" and the Nazis, which the Russians go so far as to reinvent in order to justify their infamy!

The European Union, which has five member states bordering Russia and four bordering Ukraine, all former members or satellites of the former Soviet Union, was hardly prepared for this nightmarish situation. Only NATO protects it, the NATO so imprudently mocked by Emmanuel Macron when he spoke of its "brain death". Today Finland and Sweden are rushing to join it! For it alone provides Europe with a credible military tool, despite the chronic under-armament of most European states outside the American presence and the almost total absence of the European Union's own competence in this area.

We owe this tool and this protection essentially to the involvement and power of the United States, which today holds almost half of the world's arsenal. However, apart from the fact that the United States makes us pay for our military dependence in many political, technological and commercial ways, notably by forcing most Europeans to buy their own equipment, American strategic priorities do not necessarily coincide with ours, due to their focus on the growing tensions with China in the Pacific.

For Europe, therefore, it is not only a question of a brutal return to the political situation of the Cold War, but of much worse, with this real war, its many deaths, its civil atrocities, its massive destruction and its permanent risks of unpredictable and uncontrolled sequences, with Putin taking pleasure in threatening any Western opponent of his unbridled imperialism with nuclear apocalypse. We thought we had won the peace more than thirty years ago when we signed the 1990 Moscow Treaty, which brought about German reunification and allowed the former satellites of the Soviet Union to join Europe. At the end of these thirty privileged years, we discover that this happy period had masked a guilty carelessness on our part, the horrible bill for which is presented to us today!


Unprecedented challenges for the Europe of tomorrow

The European Union is thus confronted for the first time with the problem of a country that has been recognised as a candidate for membership but is plunged into a bloody conflict imposed by its Russian neighbour, that "evil empire" as President Reagan described it, which for half a century has occupied and martyred the countries of Central and Eastern Europe, which have not forgotten anything and, while welcoming the NATO umbrella, are increasingly appalled by the situation on their borders.

Ukraine's application, apart from the tragedy of the conflict it is undergoing, is not just another application either. Its surface area exceeds that of any European Union state. But its GDP is only 20% of its average. This disparity, together with the cost of reconstruction, will mean that it will require more assistance than any other. Nevertheless, this European aid will ultimately prove eminently profitable for all because it will not concern an intrinsically poor country but a potentially rich country, albeit one currently inhabited by poor people.

Indeed, while Ukraine is one of the world's leading agricultural producers and exporters, it also has unparalleled wealth within its borders. In addition to its iron and coal mines and its steel and aluminium production in the east of the country, where the most violent conflicts take place, Ukraine also possesses a quantity of rare earths and metals (lithium, gallium, cobalt, titanium, indium, zirconium, etc.) which the European Union sorely lacks and which have become essential to its energy transition, its semi-conductors and its technological reconquest.

As for Ukraine's immense oil and gas reserves, when they are exploited they will reduce our current dependence and restrictions to a bad memory, as Russia has only used Ukraine as a transit country for its own production, not encouraging its competition!

For the Europe of tomorrow, confronted with its many economic challenges, Ukraine, integrated into the European Union, rebuilt and re-equipped as it should be, will end up offering in return, for their mutual benefit, what Europeans lacked to ensure their energy autonomy while giving them the means to succeed in their climate and technological transition. In addition to the obvious political, geopolitical and of course humanitarian issues, which remain a priority, Ukraine will therefore more than deserve all the logistical and armed assistance that Europe can provide.

But current aid falls tragically short of what is needed. Our economic sanctions are triggering Russian countermeasures that highlight our own vulnerability and dependence on energy imports. And they will not by themselves be enough to change the fate of the weapons.

As for our real but measured support in terms of armaments, it may not be enough either, for lack of a more frontal and determined commitment on the scale of the Russian aggression. Will we let Putin's army crush our candidate, who is fighting as much for our freedoms as for his own, without moving a single metre?


Unprecedented challenges for Emmanuel Macron's France

In this critical situation, the limited margin of a re-elected president without a parliamentary majority to rely on greatly weakens his capacity for initiative. The time when Valéry Giscard d'Estaing thought he could bring together "two Frenchmen out of three" to modernise France and reactivate Europe seems long gone. Emmanuel Macron finds himself in a reverse situation, with a parliamentary group without a majority, framed by a far left and a far right that are as strong as they are eurosceptic, cultivating within their ranks very ambivalent attitudes towards Putin.

This situation places our president in an uncomfortable, if not perilous, position, at the very moment when the expression he used three times in the face of the covid, "we are at war", would seem justified this time, even though he is careful not to use it again now that we are involved in this real war!

The only cards to his credit are the presidential privileges attributed by the Fifth Republic to the president, in his functions as head of the army as well as in his 'reserved domain' in foreign policy, thus within the European Council, supported by his broad autonomy of action beyond Parliament, unparalleled among our neighbours.


New challenges for Olaf Scholz's Germany

The coalition government of Olaf Scholz, even if its formation took two long months, does not have the current problems of the new French government. Accustomed to parliamentarianism and to a culture of compromise rather than confrontation, unlike France, Germany, federal and pragmatic, appears from this point of view to be much better organised politically than France, which is both centralised and fractured. But the war in Ukraine is now forcing Germany to radically question its strategic choices, which were so carefully considered and negotiated, both in terms of defence and energy policy.

The Bundewehr, too carefree since German reunification and the fall of the Soviet Union, still marked by the hidden and taboo memory of the Wehrmacht, today finds itself under-formatted in the face of the new stakes of the war in the East, if not 'naked' according to the expression of one of its leaders. Chancellor Scholz has certainly announced an unprecedented plan of 100 billion euros to re-equip it. But this will involve an extraordinary budgetary and industrial effort. And will it be enough to recreate the fighting spirit required in a Germany that has lost its anti-militarist culture?

The same challenge applies to energy. Chancellor Merkel's abrupt decision to abandon nuclear power not only gave the green light to the exploitation of particularly polluting coal, but was coupled with an irresponsible dependence on Russian gas conglomerates, of which former Chancellor Schröder had become an active director. Germany is now at an impasse, caught between climate issues and sanctions against Russia.


New challenges for the Franco-German couple

As it is often called in France, the Franco-German couple, central to the construction of Europe and complementary in its respective strengths, is rich in history with its shared emotions, as well as its ups and downs.

Its shared emotions cannot be underestimated. Marked by the desire to turn the page on age-old and increasingly inhuman confrontations, they have been illustrated by numerous symbolic gestures: the offer of a common future to Chancellor Adenauer by Robert Schuman, a Lorraine native born German, as early as 1950; the embrace between de Gaulle and Adenauer at the 1963 Elysée Treaty; Mitterrand and Kohl hand in hand at Verdun in 1984; Macron and Merkel in 2018 in the clearing at Rethondes. But like any long history, this one will also have had its ups and downs.

Its high points were the creation in 1951 of the ECSC for coal and steel and in 1957 of the EEC for the common market, the election of the European Parliament by universal suffrage, followed by the EMS and then monetary union, and recently the invention of a European loan to deal with the economic crisis linked to covid.

Its low point was when France refused in 1954 to ratify the EDC, which created a European army, and then twice, in 1994 under the Mitterrand presidency in governmental cohabitation with Balladur and then in 2000 under the Chirac presidency in governmental cohabitation with Jospin, opposed the German proposals for a federal Europe framing monetary union, or again during our negative referendum in 2005 on the draft European Constitutional Treaty, which was dear to Germany.

Beyond these ups and downs, the ties between the Franco-German couple have never been free of ambiguities due to the persistence of a strong diversity in their political and social systems as well as in their own cultures. The Franco-German couple remains ill-prepared to exchange the achievements and failures of its long cohabitation for an unknown form of integration.

In accordance with a deeply rooted French tradition, Emmanuel Macron's European approach thus remains primarily intergovernmental, beyond the passionate European accents of his Sorbonne speech, recently reaffirmed before the European Parliament. And if the unprecedented display of the European flag under the Arc de Triomphe publicly illustrated this attachment, it nonetheless triggered a controversy in France that would have seemed incongruous in Berlin.

This European vision of France thus remains far from that of Germany, whose Olaf Scholz coalition quietly stipulates in its current programme the objective of a European federal state (europäischer Bundesstaat), whereas no party, no political personality in France, would dare to present such an objective to the electorate. The attachment to federalism remains the common reference for all Germans, while a sacralised Gaullist reverence seems, on the contrary, to have become the only unifying feature for all French people.

The institutions of both countries illustrate these differences. The presidential, vertical and intrinsically personal regime of the Fifth Republic, in reaction to the previous systems of the Third and Fourth Republics, has been fundamentally different for 60 years from the parliamentary regime, which is more deeply rooted in Germany than ever before. The French territorial system is a replica of this verticality, with its hundred or so departmental prefects subject to the central power in Paris. It has nothing to do with the German system of the Länder, endowed with autonomies, respective weights, budgets and prerogatives without comparison with our regions artificially superimposed on the départements, adding competition and confusion to our bureaucratisation.

On the cultural level, twinning between French and German cities has certainly remained important and there have been many mutual exchanges of students, particularly in the framework of Erasmus. On the other hand, mutual knowledge of languages has continued to decline, the widespread use of English, activated by the Internet, having confirmed a situation which now seems difficult to reverse.

Thus, despite the progress of a borderless Europe with the same currency, the ways of being, thinking and acting have remained very different on either side of the Rhine. This will not facilitate a change that the situation makes urgent.


New challenges, new answers

For the war that Putin has imposed on Ukraine is aimed just as much at Europe, its sovereignty, its democracy, its way of life, its freedoms and its values. He likes to provoke the European Union, which he despises and which he will do everything to divide. Faced with such a threat, Europe and the Franco-German partnership are called upon to change radically. This radical change will not come without a crisis. But Jean Monnet predicted it: Europe will be built in crises and will be the only response to them.

Of course, many people, starting with our leaders, will argue against such an upheaval of the current European system, however flawed, because of growing Euroscepticism among voters. But the question is badly put! All the public debates on the future of Europe organised in recent years, first at the request of Commission President Juncker, then of President Macron and then of the European Council, have clearly demonstrated that the criticism of the vast majority of our fellow citizens is not aimed at the European construction itself, but rather at its political and security impotence, its opaque functioning, its democratic and social shortcomings, its international weaknesses, its laxity at the external borders, its inequities in tax treatment, and its technocratic excesses. To remedy this, a leap of integration is needed. But how?


No effective response without Franco-German refoundation

These clear lessons from the many public debates held with citizens have been largely ignored, forgotten and glossed over, both by our media and, what is much more serious, by those who commissioned them, i.e. our own leaders! Under these conditions, a new conference of 27 Member States to revise the treaties would certainly not be the right method to make a success of this leap forward in integration, given the lack of a preliminary step today.

However, Europe cannot remain deaf to Volodymyr Zelenski's calls for more direct assistance in its resistance to Russian aggression. It is true that Putin has not hesitated, in an unprecedented move, to brandish the nuclear threat against anyone who interferes with his aggression. But in this game of liar's poker where he plays all the cards, weakness will certainly pay less than firmness, including a direct interposition at Zelensky's call. Churchill had warned the Western negotiators at Munich that, having preferred dishonour to war, their dishonourable choice would lead them to war. As for Einstein, he had already noted that when faced with those who do evil, the worst thing is still those who, being witnesses to it, do nothing to oppose it!

France and Germany were joint signatories of the 2015 Minsk agreement with Russia, which guaranteed Ukraine's sovereignty. Russia having violated this agreement, they cannot remain inert, even beyond the economic retaliatory measures taken by the European Union. Today, the challenge for our two countries is no longer to add up intergovernmental cooperation projects, following the example of the Aachen catalogue, but to provide ourselves with effective, and therefore unprecedented, means of reacting to an aggression that concerns us first and foremost, as direct guarantors of Ukraine's sovereignty.

Didn't De Gaulle propose to Churchill, in 1940, a fusion of France and the United Kingdom to resist together to the common aggressor? And in 2022, wouldn't the current challenge merit, in the face of the aggression of our Ukrainian ally, a Franco-German fusion of our diplomatic, military and technological means in the service of a much more effective interposition against Russia on which the protection of our interests and our very sovereignty now depends?

How? There are too many unknowns here to predict the future: the current political weakening of President Macron, the vagaries of Chancellor Scholz's conversion plan, the difficulties in transcending our mutual differences, the ability of our opinions to accept such upheaval. But impossible, they say, is not French. It was when he saw that his left was sunken and his right bogged down that Marshal Foch decided to attack! And it was when everything was going against him that Charles de Gaulle refused to accept any fatality by his own will. Nothing should therefore prevent us from referring to Martin Luther King declaring to the crowd gathered in Washington: "I have a dream".


Without diplomatic and military integration, no Franco-German re-foundation

Our dream today would be to give the European construction the framework it lacks to ensure our continent a lasting pacification, a guaranteed sovereignty, protected freedoms and the completion of its unification.

In order to move forward resolutely in this direction, France and Germany would agree to take the first decisive step by rebuilding their mutual trust and their joint actions on an egalitarian, and therefore totally renewed, basis. It would be a question of finally drawing all the consequences of the end of the Second World War, which will soon be eighty years old, of German reunification more than thirty years ago, of continental European unification, which has yet to be completed, and of the infamous aggression, which risks compromising all of this development and all of our future, undertaken by Russia against Ukraine, the last candidate country approved by the European Union.

In this context, three Franco-German priorities should be imposed, opening the way to a European leap of integration: the officialization of a single diplomacy, the commitment to a rearmament that is as massive as it is common, and in so doing, a joint reconquest of the new technologies that Europe needs.

On several occasions, the French and German leaders had already physically put up a common front against Putin: Sarkozy then Hollande with Merkel, then Macron with Merkel then Scholz. This common front should now become official, structural and permanent.

In the UN Security Council, France should thus give up the unrealistic objective of an additional permanent German seat rather than sharing its own. It should conclude a Franco-German pact stating that the positions expressed by the French representative would be expressed in their collective name. Olaf Scholz himself had suggested in 2018 a permanent seat for the European Union in succession to the French seat, raising, it is true, an outcry in France. This Franco-German pact would be a more justified and realistic innovation, which would not exclude permanent consultation with the High Representative of the European Union for Defence and Security Policy, nor the prospect of a later extension, albeit conditional, to a representation of the Union.

This transfer of our permanent seat on the UN Security Council would go hand in hand with a permanent synchronisation of our diplomatic actions, allowing us to give our embassies common instructions and to grant our nationals identical protection and facilities.

This rebuilding of our mutual trust, linked by an integrated strategic vision and common means, would make it possible to finally launch a common defence policy which, as history has shown, it would have been illusory to expect without such unprecedented political and diplomatic preconditions.

It would cover all the logistical and military aspects of true common security, with mutually open and preferential procurement, in all their land, air and sea applications. This integrated re-equipment would include, among dozens of new joint projects, the construction of the second aircraft carrier that Europe lacks.

This Franco-German rearmament would, of course, remain directly linked to NATO, but in close partnership, and no longer in strict dependence. It would be open to all other European countries wishing to be associated, in whole or in part, with this vast programme, provided they accepted all the rules and disciplines.

Such a programme would open up innumerable industrial and technological spin-offs for the benefit of companies of all sizes, including in many areas of civilian application. It would go hand in hand with a genuine joint reconquest in fields that are essential for the future: energy, climate, biology, cybernetics, robotics, space, etc. In addition to our security, this technological reconquest programme, open to all European states and backed up by existing European programmes to which it would give a completely different scope, would ensure that Europe and its companies have the autonomy and competitiveness they so badly need in the face of globalisation.


This is not a time for pessimism or optimism but for determination

The current situation, as tragic as it is complex, presents as many risks of renunciation, division and decay as it does opportunities for re-foundation, reaction and re-conquest.

To those who will judge the perspectives thus outlined as utopian, it should be noted that they are no less likely to end up being realised than the dream of Martin Luther King in his time. And we will recall above all the attitude of Jean Monnet, when asked about the future of European construction in the face of the many obstacles it was bound to encounter: "I am neither pessimistic nor optimistic, but determined".

This was also the line of conduct of Volodymyr Zelenski when he was summoned to choose his conduct in the face of the aggression of his country, a choice now linked to history, one that will be remembered and commented on as a model for future generations. Will our own French and German leaders be able to rise to the same level?

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