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Recently in Berlin, the German Finance Minister Olaf Scholz revived the idea of transforming the permanent seat of France at the UN Security Council into a seat of the EU. Unsurprisingly, the notion was promptly rejected in Paris.
The latest fracas is part of a broader cycle of occasional, yet tense moments between France and Germany, although the UN Security Council episode spotlights deeper structural differences between the two European partners. It also raises the question of the international rank and standing of France, a topic which could invite further pressure and may result in some national isolation; after all, Paris is destined to remain after Brexit the only actor with a strategic vision and dimension in the EU. And beyond all this lurks the real question of what it is still possible to do – or not – to resurrect Europe as a credible international political actor.
The Olaf Scholz proposal was partly intended – one suspects – as a response to the mildly disparaging remarks which French President Emmanuel Macron uttered before the Bundestag on 18 November, when he complained about German ‘immobility’ in Europe. For in practical terms, everyone knows that the idea of simply swapping seats in the UN Security Council is not very credible; one does not change the composition of the Security Council where only states sit by introducing a representation by a multilateral institution, and it is difficult to see any change in the composition of the UN Security Council without a more judicious overhaul of the number of permanent members represented there.
It is undoubtedly surprising to see Germany claiming this ‘merger’ of the French and EU seats, for it also indicates that Berlin may have renounced for itself the quest to obtain a permanent seat on the Security Council alongside France, something which hitherto was part of the perspective in the discussions on a future UN reform. Until now, French diplomacy has supported Germany’s bid for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, and it will continue doing so.
So, shall we put the latest discussion down to just a few gauche words, and a few acerbic exchanges? The snag is that the exchange is more dangerous than it seems, for it takes place against a backdrop of more serious mutual misunderstandings between France and Germany. Recall Germany’s abrupt decision to halt its nuclear-power-generation industry, to impose its own budgetary ‘golden rule’, the way Greece was handled during the Euro crisis, or even the more distant disputes over Germany’s unilateral recognition of the independence of Slovenia and Croatia during the early 1990s, which caused such tensions between Kohl and Mitterrand; the differences between France and Germany, otherwise close strategic partners, were plenty.
And the impending departure from the political scene of German Chancellor Angela Merkel opens the way for many speculations. Will the two countries still be able to work together in future compatible (if not identical) definitions of power and in the interests of Europe in the world, as well as jointly identifying their desirable international partners and common opponents?
The status acquired by France in the aftermath of the Second World War, and especially as a permanent member with a right of veto in the UN Security Council, has been criticised for a long time and often by the Germans; ‘Paris wants to travel in first class with a second ticket’ was an amiable comment on France from the other side of the Rhine border. France’s status as a winner of the war also appeared less indisputable than Britain’s claim in this respect.
Since then, the various French military interventions overseas, frequently in former colonial possessions, have often been dismissed as mere gestures of France’s grandeur, activities intended to shore up France’s view of its own global centrality, rather than direct contributions to European security. Actually, however, there are other ways of expressing France’s unique leadership position on the continent: France has a nuclear arsenal useful to Europe, but one with which Germany does not wish to be associated. The country assumes responsibilities and military interventions that Berlin does not want to accept, and has a military know-how with which few other powers can compete. The competence of France’s diplomats and their activities in various international bodies are recognised by most Germans.
But France is struggling today to maintain this rank. Its budget is constrained, emerging economies are overtaking it in economic and military terms, and crises and European internal divisions constitute an almost existential challenge to the future of the European project, which is so central to France’s objectives. Once the UK has left, France will be a lone state in the EU still endowed with military projection power, nuclear weapons and a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. A Germany which itself is experiencing internal upheaval, and which enjoys many economic advantages but also suffers from limitations in its military capabilities, remains a very different country from the clichés that are sometimes peddled, and actually has no choice but to rethink its international role alongside its key partner. The difficulties of France in the world are also those of all the old European powers.
The spat about the UN Security Council nevertheless revives an important question: how can France and Germany work for a strategic Europe worthy of the name? If the proposal for a shared EU seat at the UN is unrealistic (notwithstanding the fact that the German minister – by way of consolation – offered to allow Paris to designate the UN representative concerned), what other measure should be considered? After years of small steps leading to nothing, the idea of a shock move, or a radical initiative to revive Europe’s aspirations of being a major strategic actor, is not necessarily bad. So, the hypothesis of a unique European representation in an organisation such as the UN is not to be rejected in principle.
Furthermore, the idea of France consulting more with its partners and considering their sensitivities before forging a French position at the UN should also be explored; in 2003, at the height of the Iraq war crisis, Paris may have insufficiently explored this possibility. Yet it could do so from now on. It seems that the rather odd debate about France’s UN Security Council seat may actually lead to some useful new initiatives, provided no sides in this debate lose contact with reality.
Frédéric Charillon is Professor of International Relations and Coordinator for International Studies at the National School of Administration. He also teaches at the Clermont Auvergne University and Sciences Po Paris.
BANNER IMAGE: Then US President Barack Obama chairs a UN Security Council meeting at UN Headquarters in New York, NY, 24 September 2009. Courtesy of the White House/Pete Souza
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not necessarily represent those of RUSI or any other institution.