Frank Baasner, director at the Franco-German Institute in Ludwigsburg (Deutsch-Französisches Institut Ludwigsburg), said the time had come for renewed reflection, fifty-one years after the Élysée Treaty was signed (see background).
2014 would be a historical year, Baasner said, with Germany, France and the rest of the EU putting the bloc to the test as they tackle the still unfinished eurozone crisis and military intervention in Africa. It is also an EU election year, when citizens will cast their vote for prospective MEPs.
For France, Baasner said, the year began with the beat of a drum, referring to the announcement by French President François Hollande of a "responsibility pact" between trade unions and employers and a supply-oriented economic policy.
By making this political shift to the right, the expert on France said Hollande was hoping to unburden companies in exchange for more jobs, while also reducing government spending to €50 billion by 2017.
After the speech, commentators were already pointing out the parallels with former German chancellor Gerhard Schröder's Agenda 2010 plan, Baasner said.
If Hollande's plans are carried out, it would be "very good news for the entire EU", a convinced Baasner told EurActiv.de.
But MEP Andreas Schwab from Germany's ruling Christian Democratic Union (CDU), pointed out that France still needed comprehensive reforms, dampening the hopes of a rapid transformation. The country has had significant difficulties with economic growth and improving the situation on its jobs market, Schwab said.
"The explanation from Hollande has not pushed aside these problems", the CDU politician added.
He said he did not share the idea, which is widespread in France, that tax cuts would automatically create new jobs. Flexibility must continue to increase in the job market, above all for SMEs, Schwab said.
Concerning Schröder's Agenda 2010, the CDU politician said France could use it as an example of economic transformation, but could not simply copy the plan. The differences between the French and German economies was too great for that, Schwab explained.
"The French government must take French measures", he said.
Junior partner role not acceptable to France
The assessment of prescribing a uniquely French-solution for France was shared by Georg Walter, director of the division for Franco-German relations at the Asko Europa-Stiftung in Saarbrücken.
In a statement to EurActiv.de, he emphasised that political and socio-cultural differences between France and Germany should be considered alongside the economic differences.
In 2014, Germany stands unchallenged at the tip of the European economic area and is pushing France to make reforms in line with the German model. This will only resurrect the age-old fear in France over German dominance, Walter predicted.
If Hollande seeks to shift too far towards a German-style economic course, he will come up against strong domestic opposition, said Walter.
A role as junior partner to Germany is not imaginable for France, said Walter. For this reason, the Franco-German expert said, it still remains to be seen whether France will actually satisfy German demands during the reform process.
Cause for political horsetrading?
While Germany may be dominant economically, the situation is completely different for defence policy, Walter said. France is the Grand Nation that acts alone militarily, for example in Mali or now in the Central African Republic.
Due to its colonial history, France has a presence in Africa and likewise a feeling of responsibility in stabilising francophone crisis states, the Franco-German expert explained. In contrast, he pointed out, Germany traditionally tends to avoid foreign interventions – also for historical reasons – as can currently be seen in Africa.
In that case, Walter wondered if there was potential for political horsetrading. France could make concessions to Germany in economic policy and in return Germany offers more support for France in military interventions, Walter suggested, calling it a win-win situation.
"Theoretically," replied Schwab regarding the prospect, "this idea could be expanded". Still, he said he believed that the historical differences between the two countries were too deeply rooted.
Germany does not send troops until it has made a lengthy evaluation, the MEP pointed out. So instead of rapid action, he said more preliminary planning on the part of France would give Germany more room for involvement in foreign interventions.
"There is a fundamental readiness for greater [military] cooperation," Schwab said.
Restoring the 'engine of European integration'
According to the three experts, it seems 2014 could be the right time to pinpoint steps for greater security and economic policy integration in the Franco-German partnership.
"It remains crucial that Germany and France stand united behind the European project and, despite differing approaches and rationales, continue to come to an understanding on moving forward in the unification process", said Walter.
"In 2014, Germany and France must become the engine of European integration again", said Baasner along the same lines.
Even amid rising nationalist trends in many member states, Walter said he was optimistic that the heads of state and government would work things out, adopting a proactive and forward-looking mentality.
"Cooperation in Europe is not just about euros and cents, not only about the single market and the banking union," said Schwab, "it also includes a human dimension that holds people together".