More than three-quarters of a century after engaging one another in the most destructive war in human history, Germany and France – the two traditional powers at the heart of the European project – signed a treaty of friendship in the historic German city of Aachen on the Franco-German border on January 21 as part of their effort to show that the core of the EU remains strong despite the growth of Eurosceptic parties in recent years.
Signed in a city awash in both cultural and geographic symbolism as the resting place of the ninth century Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne and situated right on the French-German border, the political significance of the event takes its cue from the fact that the bond between Berlin and Paris is central to the European Union concept of an “ever closer union” for the Continuent, particularly during a time when the bloc is being tested by the United Kingdom’s pending withdrawal from the EU and anti-establishment parties that are questioning the validity of a pan-European project.
“Populism and nationalism are strengthening in all of our countries,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said at the signing ceremony. “Seventy-four years – a single human lifetime – after the end of the second world war, what seems self-evident is being called into question once more.”
The latest treaty signed by the two nations is a follow-up to a 1963 agreement known as the Elysee Treaty, which was designed as a showpiece of post-war solidarity and partnership between the two former foes. The 56-year-old is regularly renewed and is seen as one of the main drivers of European integration.
Signed by Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron, the Aachen declaration is short on details about the basic mechanics of the two nation’s goals, but it is wide in scope in that the document calls on the two respective governments to focus on making Germany a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council – a move the German government has sought for years.
The agreement also says the two countries will cooperate more on security policies and stronger economic integration, as well as deeper coordination on environmental and climate policy.
The 15-page document makes no reference to the highly divisive topic of illegal immigration into the EU, but clearly spells out that both France and Germany remain committed to preserving and strengthening the European Union and NATO and notes that the two will deepen their strategic technology cooperation by setting up a joint vocational training centre for the development of artificial intelligence, while also taking steps to ensure that Europe has the capacity to act autonomously when it comes to security operations amid heightened tensions with their traditional the United States over specific defence and trade policies.
Speaking alongside Merkel, Macron spoke of the heightened need to strengthen the relationship between the two neighbours as threats to the cohesion of the European project grow by the day: “Those who forget the value of Franco-German reconciliation are making themselves accomplices of the crimes of the past. Those who spread lies are hurting the same people they are pretending to defend, by seeking to repeat history,” said Macron before adding, “The two countries’ friendship, common project and ambition for Europe are what really protect us, and that allows us really to take back control of our lives and to build our destiny.”
The reaction from the individuals that Macron was referring to quickly, and expectedly, derided the new Aachen Treat, with France’s National Front leader Marine Le Pen accusing Macron of travelling to Germany “essentially destroy what General (Charles) de Gaulle had done, that is to say, to lead France into the first league of nations,” through his staunch sovereigntist ideology that was neither tied to the West or the East during the Cold War.
Sovereigntist politicians across Europe, including Italy’s powerful Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini and Alternative for Germany leader Alexander Gauland, immediately questioned the need for an official document to solidifies future Franco-German co-operation. Salvini had already stated earlier in January that he would challenge the wording of the text in light of both Germany and France being opposed to the politically conservative alliance that Italy and Poland are currently in the process of forging.
“The EU is now deeply divided. A German-French special relationship will alienate us even further from the other Europeans,” said Gauland, before adding, “Macron cannot maintain order in his own country. The nationwide protests in France are never-ending. So it is inappropriate if this failing president imposes visions on us for the future of Germany.”