Germany: You Have Lost Your Leadership Legitimacy
For the French mainstream media and political elite, the slogan the “Franco-German couple” is a mantra reflecting the belief that progress in the sphere of EU affairs almost invariably comes from Franco-German convergence in strategic thinking.
In the last two decades, however, this vision has rather been a projection of the French elite’s idealised self-image than a reality borne out by facts. At least since Jacques Chirac left the Elysée Palace in 2007, it is German thinking which has tended to dominate EU politics due to Germany’s bigger economy, whilst French ideas have struggled to compete.
But with the war in Ukraine, Germany’s many strategic failures, notably in the sphere of energy policy, have become painfully clear to her fellow member states and irreparably dented her legitimacy as sole leader, calling for France and indeed smaller EU countries to (re-)gain more weight in EU decision-making.
A Failed Energy Policy
Decades ago, Germany made the conscious decision to base its industrial production quasi entirely on the supply of cheap gas from Russia, allowing her to gain a significant competitive advantage in the export of complex and capital-intensive machinery. Under the pressure of environmental civil-society organisations, Germany also began preparing for a complete phase-out of civil nuclear energy – the only source of energy pilotable at will and the supply of whose inputs (uranium) are relatively secure through the EURATOM Treaty.
One cannot help thinking that this long-term energy policy was developed by fools, for it entirely sapped the country’s economic sovereignty. By increasing her dependency on Russian energy imports and drastically decreasing her endogenous energy production, Germany effectively surrendered the fate of her industry to the goodwill of... Russian autocrats.
Nord Stream 1 and later Nord Stream 2 – the two gas pipelines linking Germany to Russia – were the result of either one of two things, possibly a mix of both: of highly risk-averse gamblers betting that Russia-EU relations would not sour to the extent of triggering a supply interruption, or at any rate that the short-term competitivity gains would still outweigh the costs of a future interruption; or, alternatively, of neo-liberal ideologues not pricing transborder risks in their decisions due to their belief that national borders are in any case irrelevant. One finds it hard to determine who is worse – the gambler or the ideologue.
Industrial Catastrophe and Moral Malaise
Today, the nightmarish scenario of an interruption of gas supplies has concretised as Russia retaliated against EU economic sanctions. Who could have predicted it? Well, pretty much anybody endowed with a modicum of rational thought.
And the consequences are spelling out both an industrial catastrophe and a moral malaise for the EU as a whole. With gas flows from Russia interrupted, the cost of energy factors has skyrocketed (the supply has decreased; the demand has not). Within the framework of the EU energy market, moreover, the hike has not been contained to Germany, but indeed has spilled over to other member states, meaning that all are (quite literally) paying the price for Germany’s strategic errors. Many people like French Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire have contended that EU energy prices will structurally remain higher than they were before the war started, which, if the US keeps flooding its industry with state subsidies as it is currently doing under the Inflation Reduction Act, means that big firms will start flocking to the US and desert the EU market.
What is more, the pain that high energy prices are inflicting upon EU households makes it a delicate balancing act for governments to keep the economic sanctions in place; in other words, energy price pressures pose the most direct threat to EU unity in support for Ukraine. And Germany bears enormous responsibility in those pressures existing in the first instance.
The French Counter-model
Criticism – particularly in hindsight –, is all too easy when there is no alternative to the reality which is being critiqued, some might argue. In this case, that would be a legitimate comment if only there had not existed all along a counter-model to the German industrial hara-kiri.
Whilst Germany was laying the basis for its dependency on Russian gas, France kept promoting its model of nuclear-based energy sovereignty. Notwithstanding the ideological attacks by environmental activists, nuclear remains the only CO2-free source of energy whose supply is both reliable and endogenously controllable. That does not mean it is perfect – the dangers of nuclear accidents are well-known, and there do at times arise technical problems which cut the electricity supply short –, but it is by far more strategically secure than cross-border pipelines supplying gas from autocratic countries.
Unfortunately, over the years Germany’s superior status within the Franco-German couple has granted her more authoritativeness, and so her opposition to nuclear energy has managed to pull the brakes on the roll-out of new reactors in other members states and to push for the de-commissioning of existing ones. Nuclear energy is now picking up steam again in several EU countries, however, mainly as a result of the war in Ukraine. Better to wake up late than never. But it remains that German Greens have done irreparable harm to the EU as a whole with their anti-nuclear, ideological poison.
With the EU now in crisis, Germany is turning down common solutions. French President Emmanuel Macron’s proposal – strongly supported by Italy – for an EU-wide gas-purchase mechanism imposing a price cap on suppliers is harshly opposed by German Chancellor Olaf Scholz; his fear is that, under this arrangement, supplies might not be guaranteed. It is fully in Germany’s rights to look after her national interests first: after all, her economy is very industry-heavy, and a supply shortage would therefore affect her most.
But with the painful realisation that German strategic thinking – if not in all spheres, at any rate in the geopolitics of energy – has proved disastrous and pulled the entire EU into crisis, the fact that Germany is still playing it solo should signify the end of her sole EU leadership. The “Franco-German couple” needs to be re-instated as a reality, and not just serve as a band-aid wording for French pride. There needs to be more pluralism in the formulation of EU-wide strategies and more co-ordination on national policies in order to limit negative externalities inflicted on other member states. And smaller countries need a bigger voice, too, for big decisions, when wrong, have the biggest impact foremost on them.
The opinions expressed in this article reflect the opinions of its author(s). They do not represent the views of UCL’s Diplomacy Society or Diplomacy Review.