When German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron signed a new Franco-German Treaty last week in the historic city of Aachen it had pomp and gravitas as background setting.
But in the foreground, figuratively speaking, the two leaders are beset by jarring political problems in both their respective countries, as well as across the entire European Union and on the international level.
If the location of the 9th century Charlesmagne empire centered on German border city of Aachen was meant to inspire unity, it could equally also inspire doom. All empires are destined to fall. Why should the supranational EU not also succumb to demise?
The Franco-German accord signed by Macron and Merkel appeared to be more a PR gesture than a substantive development.
For a start, there already exists an accord between the two countries. The Elysée Treaty signed in 1963 was signed by Charles de Gaulle and Konrad Adenauer and is viewed as an historic postwar reconciliation between the two major European powers which helped paved the way for the modern European Union.
Some observers questioned the need for Macron and Merkel to sign a new treaty. “It was like an old couple renewing their marriage vows,” commented historian Marion Gaillard to France 24.
The treaty last week aims to bring closer cooperation between Germany and France in the fields of foreign policy, defense, security, economic policy, and to reinforce the wider EU project. Importantly, another aim is to strengthen “the ability of Europe to act independently”.
The day after signing, Angela Merkel addressed the World Economic Forum in Davos, where she said the new Franco-German pact was a real step towards the creation of a European army.
Striving to give Europe independence in foreign policy and defense is obviously a response to the growing tensions between the United States and the EU, tensions that have rudely emerged since Donald Trump became president.
Trump’s berating of European governments, in particular Germany’s, over trade, foreign policy and NATO military spending has inevitably pushed the two main EU powers – Berlin and Paris – to close ranks and perhaps to try to salvage some respect for their images as not being mere vassals of Washington.
However, the outlook is not auspicious. European governments continue to slavishly follow the line from Washington on adopting hostile sanctions against Russia. Also last week, it was shameful how the EU meekly went along with Washington’s blatant coup attempt in Venezuela. So much for being independent!
Merkel and Macron also had their eyes on mounting pressures from within the European bloc.
The two leaders lamented the rise of “populism and nationalism” as negative forces undermining and fracturing the 28-member EU project. Thus by signing the accord last week, the German and French leaders were aiming to “inspire unity” and “cohesion”.
Again, their effort seems more pomp and PR than anything of substantive progress.
While Macron poured tea for Merkel and shared niceties in Aachen, both their countries are reeling from social unrest over economic grievances and uncontrolled immigration. Both leaders have seriously lost political authority. They are weakened figures in the eyes of their respective public, unlike the 1963 signatories De Gaulle and Adenauer who at the time were revered as statesmen.
France’s Macron is particularly despised by growing numbers of his citizens. The Yellow Vest protests, which have been gripping France for nearly three months, are demanding his resignation, mocking Macron as “president of the very rich”.
Merkel is also a shadow of the former “Iron Chancellor” she once was seen as. In her final term of office, she is due to step down with her reputation sullied by growing economic grievances among Germans and the rise of the anti-immigration and Eurosceptic party, Alternative for Germany. Merkel’s former “open door” policy on immigration has rebounded to damage the electoral strength of her center-right Christian Democrat party.
The signing of the Franco-German accord last week is seen as a hollow attempt by both leaders to give themselves an aura of gravitas in the face of growing criticism and rancor among voters. If anything, the exercise in Aachen will further incite popular contempt.
As for Macron and Merkel “inspiring unity” for the rest of Europe: their pomp and ceremony collides with the reality of visceral anger across the EU over what many citizens see as an aloof, unresponsive European establishment whose neoliberal capitalist policies relentlessly rack up social misery.
Macron deprecates so-called “populism” as a nasty scourge on a presumed pristine Europe. He has even referred to populist politics as a form of “leprosy” corroding the body politic of the EU. His snide comments were seen as an attack on the governing parties of Italy and Hungary.
Italy’s deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini has become a thorn in Macron’s side. Salvini lambasted the French leader for “all talk and no action”, adding that he hoped French voters will soon get rid of “terrible Macron”.
Italy’s second deputy prime minister Luigi Di Maio also gave a verbal kicking to French pretensions last week. He slammed France for “exploiting Africa” through its economic policies towards former colonies, and in that way, claimed Di Maio, French governments are fueling migration to Europe.
Considering that Italy is one of the founding members of the EU – along with France and Germany – the increasingly bitter rhetoric demonstrates just how fractured the bloc has become.
It must be deeply alarming to Europhiles like Macron and Merkel that so many parties across the EU have endorsed Britain’s decision for Brexit, despite the mess that the Brits have made of that departure.
What Macron and Merkel, and other pro-EU establishment politicians, don’t seem to understand is that “populism” is simply a democratic revolt against the orthodoxy of running economies to satisfy big banks and big business, while ordinary people are expected to endure poverty, low wages, unemployment, rising living costs, unaffordable housing, and deteriorating public services.
In other words, the likes of Macron and Merkel have created their own challenges, opposition, and failures from pursuing bankrupt capitalist policies.
At the Davos conference of business elites last week, Italian premier Giuseppe Conte castigated EU economic policies for “sowing despair and discontent across Europe”. He added: “We are radical because we want to bring the power back to the people.”
The Franco-German Treaty signed last week is a useless sticking plaster for covering up a fracturing Europe. What is required is to rebuild Europe with an economic, political system that is genuinely democratic in addressing the needs of ordinary people. And to create a Europe that is truly independent from Washington’s warmongering and Cold War obsession towards Russia.