The Franco-German engine gets all the media attention, but it is Dutch-German cooperation that has done the important work in recent years. France and Germany can do a lot together, but Germany and France should remember that Berlin has – and needs – other options, writes Christel Arlette Zunneberg.
Christel Arlette Zunneberg is a research assistant at European Council on Foreign Relations.
After a long year of elections in France and Germany, we are supposedly about to enter a new golden age of Franco-German cooperation. Dispirited pro-Europeans look hopefully to the awkwardly-named Mercron couple to re-ignite European integration.
There is no doubt that the French-German combo has potential. But 2017 is not 1957. The traditional pairing has proven unfit to manage Europe’s recent major crises and it will not provide a ‘one-partnership-fits-all’ solution for the problems to come.
To be frank, Germany has – and needs – other strategic partners.
When the Franco-German engine sputters
Recently, it has not been Franco-German cooperation, but rather Dutch-German efforts that have moved the European Union. Since the start of the financial crisis in 2008, Berlin’s alliance with The Hague has often mattered more than the one with Paris, particularly in economic and monetary matters.
In 2013, Dutch-German cooperation was ‘institutionalised’ at the European level when the eurozone members appointed a Dutch president of the Eurogroup, with German backing.
During the Greek government-debt crisis in 2010, the Dutch-German duo successfully pushed the Commission to accept IMF involvement. A role for the IMF was a Dutch idea that the Germans initially opposed. But they eventually internalised it and it was introduced in the Bundestag as a German initiative.
Similarly, when Germany advocated unpopular measures during the financial crisis, the Dutch tellingly agreed to assume the ‘bad-cop’ role.
The March 2016 EU-Turkey deal is another striking example of Dutch-German joint leadership. There was close, informal high-level contact, namely between the Dutch migration ambassador and the German Chancellery to negotiate the agreement, while Angela Merkel and Dutch Prime Minister Marc Rutte took the lead in getting the deal through the European Council.
Many member states and the presidents of the Commission and the European Council were overwhelmed (disturbed even) by the effectiveness of the Dutch-German juggernaut.
In part, Berlin’s strained relationship with Paris under President Hollande explains the close cooperation with The Hague in the past decade. Dutch-German cooperation is generally smoother: Berlin and The Hague have more of a love match compared to the Franco-German ‘marriage of convenience’, which seems to need institutionalised high-level coordination to forge close relations.
The strategic advantages of promiscuity
This is not just about the Netherlands. The more fundamental point is that renewed intimacy between France and Germany will not substitute for other strategic partnerships. At this decisive moment in Europe’s history, a note of caution to Germany’s emerging government is in order: do not lose sight of other beneficial alliances.
Historically, Berlin has proven extremely hesitant to press on with the schemes Paris fundamentally objects to. At times, it got carried away and partnered with France at the expense of its other long-standing alliances.
One notorious example was the negotiations in the French coastal town of Deauville (2010), where despite initial alignment with the Netherlands, Germany eventually (and without previous notice) repositioned itself to ultimately side with France.
Granted, the Franco-German tandem is unique: when Berlin and Paris manage to bridge the distance between them, they forge a broad ‘European compromise’ that is thus often acceptable to the entire EU.
The Dutch-German alliance does not compare in this regard. Rather, it gets member states who are already of the same mind to act, by forming a coalition to pass or block proposals within the EU Council.
Nevertheless, Berlin should keep in mind that it needs other partners, with their unique strategic benefits. The Netherlands’ benign image as a smaller member state is of use to a Germany that is often seen as too large and too overbearing.
The Netherlands regularly puts forward German initiatives, which are easier to digest if proposed by a smaller member state. At other times, the Netherlands, by agreement with Germany, adopts clear positions as a “flank player” which frees up Germany to seek to create middle ground with other partners.
Many European states feel a deep uneasiness about Germany taking the lead. A special partnership with France, with its own tradition of ignoring small European powers, does little to alleviate this anxiety. By contrast, Germany’s exceptional relationship with a smaller member state like the Netherlands gives life to the European idea of cooperation on an equal footing.