By Dr Domenico Giannino,  Law Lecturer and Blogger

Aachen (Aix-la-Chapelle for the French speakers) is an ‘enchanting’ German city in North Rhine-Westphalia, historically famous for being the Charlemagne Empire’s capital and the place where several Holy Roman Emperors were crowned. Since the last 22 January, this place is known for another ‘historical’ event: the Franco-German Treaty on Cooperation and Integration.

The signatories have depicted the treaty as an impulse to European integration (Merkel) and an act of responsibility for the two countries aiming to show the way to the rest of Europe (Macron). However, from an analysis of the Treaty’s provisions, its real political objectives seem to be much less ambitious.

This post provides a critical analysis of the Aachen Treaty.

The Treaty starts by recalling the Élysée Treaty, signed on 22 January 1963 by West German Federal Chancellor Konrad Adenauer and French President Charles de Gaulle. The latter was a pivotal point in the history not only of those two countries, but also of Europe as a whole. Indeed, the Élysée Treaty ended centuries of violent rivalry, creating the groundwork for successful European integration.

Following this prestigious self-endorsement, the agreement comprises a long list of cooperation promises in several policies matters.

From diplomatic cooperation, with a reciprocal exchange of diplomatic personnel (article 5); to collaboration in the fight against organised crime and terrorism (article 6), and in the field of culture, research and education (article 9), where a gradual standardization of the two educational systems and the mutual recognition of academic title are the objectives (article 10).

Furthermore, cooperation projects will be established in the areas of international policies of development (article 7), with a particular focus on the African continent; sustainable development (article 18); energy transition (article 19); artificial intelligence (article 21).

Some commentators have highlighted the extreme vagueness of the agreement; however, this is a pretty common feature of international law instruments of a non-technical nature.

From the institutional point of view, the treaty builds the framework for the creation of different cooperation bodies.

Firstly, the committee for cross-border cooperation (article 14) with the competence for coordinating all transboundary cooperation initiatives (article 13).

Secondly, whereas the financial and economic Franco-German council will aim to harmonize the legislation of the two countries for establishing a Franco-German economic area; the Franco-German council of economic experts will make specific recommendations to the two governments.

Thirdly, a permanent communication channel is established between the two executives. Indeed, the treaty provides for a joint council of ministers – as the highest decision-making body of the bilateral cooperation – and for the approval of a long-term programme of cooperation projects (article 23). In addition, once every three months, a minister of one of the two countries will participate in the council of ministers of the other country (article 24).

Fourthly and lastly, the Secretaries-General for Franco-German cooperation will periodically overview the status of the cooperation projects (article 25).

The most interesting parts of the agreement concern the role of this cooperation partnership in the European Union. The reinforcement of European integration is a leitmotif throughout the treaty, starting with its first article.

The two partners undertake to adopt – as far as possible – a common position at the EU level (articles 2 and 3). The two countries aim to create a Franco-German block to take joint responsibility for the future of Europe.

Moreover, France and Germany commit themselves to a very strict military cooperation, led by the Franco-German defence council (article 4). From Merkel’s and Macron’s perspective, this would hopefully be the embryo of a joint European army.

Is it time for PESCO (Permanent Structure Cooperation)[1], the Lisbon Treaty’s sleeping beauty, to wake up? Or, perhaps, a project for a European army would further divide member States?

President Macron’s and Chancellor Merkel’s cooperation efforts will include the United Nations, where the two leaders earnestly advocate for a common stance of the European countries. However, the real political objective of the cooperation agreement is different: the inclusion of Germany as a permanent member of the Security Council (article 8.2).

It appears to me that – instead of aiming to add another European country to the permanent members of the UN Security Council – a committemnt to turning the French seat in a European one would be a logical consequence of a real common foreign and security policy.

In politics, there is nothing more important than symbols and the Aachen treaty is, from this point of view, highly symbolic. Whether the treaty will become a pivotal change of pace in EU integration or a massive political marketing campaign in view of the 2019 European Parliament election, will be up to the signatories.

The choice to mention the Élysée Treaty in the preamble and to sign the agreement in the city where Charlemagne – the king who united much of western and central Europe during the Early Middle Ages – was buried, are clear emblems of the pan-European spirit of the agreement. However, the treaty fails to deal with the most important issue threatening the unity of the EU, i.e. the problem of the afflux of migrants.

Nonetheless, the treaty may represent a strong response to the disruptive forces that threaten the future of European integration: namely Brexit and the new wave of European nationalisms.

Still, some questions arise from this political strategy.

Firstly, it would be worthwhile to reflect whether a leader at the end of her political career, Angela Merkel, and a politically ‘moribund’ Macron are able to take up the challenge of regenerating the EU integration project.

Secondly, assuming they have a common vision of the future of Europe, whether the other European countries – and actually their own people – share it is still up for debate. A two-speed Europe, or a Europe led by Germany and France, would not ‘amuse’ the rest of the European partners and there is the risk to increase the cleavage between ‘creditor’ and ‘debitor’ member States, of which the recent diplomatic crisis is an example. Indeed, there is always the tendency to label with the buzzword populism any critical idea about European austerity policies, forgetting that the time has proved the critics right. Either the Europe Union becomes more sympathetic towards the member states in financial and political difficulties or the European integration project is doomed to failure.

Thirdly and lastly, it appears quite reasonable that the two leaders’ political strategies aim to gain short-term political advantages in the forthcoming European Parliamentary election, rather than to strengthen European integration. Arguably, this shows a lack of political leadership and of a clear plan for its future that is the major problem of the European Union.

[1] See Treaty of the EU, Articles 42 (6) and 46, as well as Protocol 10.