50 Years After Landmark Treaty, Can France and Germany Save Europe?

Ceremonies marking the 1963 Franco-German partnership pale in comparison to U.S. presidential inaugurations, but they mark an alliance credited with driving the E.U. — and the euro — toward greater stability and prosperity

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Coming just 24 hours after Barack Obama’s star-studded presidential inauguration that drew millions of TV viewers around the globe, Tuesday’s celebrations in Berlin of the 1963 Franco-German friendship treaty never stood much chance of commanding the world’s rapt attention. The world would do well to stifle its yawn and reconsider.

Fine, the anniversary festivities may not be the stuff of banner headlines or hours of live TV news coverage — not even Tuesday afternoon’s joint session of the two countries’ Parliaments (yes, that was the climax event). But despite that, the future of the Franco-German partnership and its historically central role in E.U. construction will be essential in shaping whether news coming out of Europe — and affecting the rest of the world — is mostly good or bad in coming years. It will also determine whether the recent clashes over the euro are troubling signs of things to come or a passing exception to the wider, 50-year rule of close partnership.

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The Élysée Treaty feted Tuesday in Berlin was signed Jan. 22, 1963, by French President Charles de Gaulle and West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer. The accord sought to closely bind the two continental powers in mutual projects as a means of averting the clashes of interests that led them to wage three wars against each other during in the previous century. Though it followed the 1957 Treaty of Rome that laid the foundations for what became the E.U., the Franco-German partnership has served as the motor driving rising ambitions, expanding borders and deepening integration of what’s now a 27-nation, 500 million-person bloc.

That’s not to say serious friction in the E.U.’s version of the U.S.-British “special relationship” hasn’t arisen over time. Then French President François Mitterrand actively sought to prevent German reunification he feared would leave the former foe too economically and politically powerful to equal. Mitterrand’s conservative successor Jacques Chirac, meantime, worked fruitfully with Social Democratic Chancellor Gerhard Schröder despite his personal dislike of his German opponent. And though they shared common conservative policy turf, Chancellor Angela Merkel maintained a fractious relationship with France’s mercurial ex-President Nicolas Sarkozy — and even countered the French leader’s launch of the E.U.’s Union for the Mediterranean partnership with North African and Middle East nations with an eastward-bound initiative of her own.

Yet despite jostling within the Franco-German alliance, their common movement tended to propel the E.U. ever onward. That was most obvious through mutual backing of major European projects like the 1992 Maastricht Treaty that outlined the creation of the euro. Yet headway seemed to be made even when proposals backed by the Franco-German couple fell to defeat. Such small-ball progress arose when the emphatically integrationist 2005 European constitution proposal went down to national referenda, only to be replaced by a modest package of progressive measures adopted in the Lisbon Treaty.

Virtually all E.U. construction and consolidation in the past 50 years was in some way advanced by the Franco-German alliance — a pairing de Gaulle predicted in 1963 would supply Europe “a carriage and horses, with Germany [being] the horse and France the driver.” Of late, the Germans have been cashing in on past labor to claim France’s self-appointed pilot’s role as their own — but not without protest.

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That has come loudest during the debt crisis that brought the euro to the point of implosion. By insisting critically indebted nations accustomed to spending more than they generate embrace German-style frugality, Merkel got accused by many — including France — of being a fiscal dominatrix intent on imposing a Teutonic austerity fetish on the rest of Europe. Grotesque caricatures aside, the euro’s existence now seems assured — so much so that some observers fear spendthrift governments may exploit the currency’s reprieve to ease belt-tightening that earned the euro’s new lease on life in the first place.

The most likely place for such backsliding to occur is France, whose Socialist President François Hollande was an early critic of German tough love. But since teaming up with Spanish and Italian leaders in June to get growth-nurturing stimulus-spending measures added to German-inspired austerity mechanisms within the E.U.’s fiscal-stability pact, Hollande has largely acquiesced to Merkel’s calls for greater discipline and controls across the euro zone.

Hollande’s attention to deficit reduction was but one of several pleasant surprises for Merkel. Élysée officials say their common natural reserve, abhorrence of flash and controversy, and disdain for hastily revealed policy innovations that punctuated Sarkozy’s presidency have helped Hollande and Merkel to form a solid working relationship. In fact, ideological differences aside, some observers say Merkel and Hollande have been exemplars of the Franco-German tradition of cooperation — overseeing E.U. agreement on fiscal stability, budget controls, and a banking union in seven months.

It’s in the best interests for Europe — and the world’s economy and diplomatic community that relies on a solid and strong E.U. — that Franco-German relations continue growing tighter, rather than drift apart. As Britain apparently readies what French diplomats now call its “inevitable and logical” easing away from the E.U., the rest of Europe will eventually be called upon to decide which path it wants to follow. Some like Sweden and the Czech Republic already appear tempted to consider London’s “no thanks” response to a more integrated, activist European bloc, while others are hesitating within the enduring euro tumult. For the E.U. to come through the fiscal crisis as big, strong and united as possible, it will need the Franco-German motor driving the bloc with even more force of conviction and efficiency than it has in the past 50 years.

MORE: Euro Crisis Strains Franco-German Alliance