Potential for Franco-German convergence on Russia exists, but this impetus is likely to encounter strong opposition within the EU and to be severely diminished by the Kremlin’s increasingly destructive behaviour inside and outside Russia.
France and Germany have different but potentially complementary agendas with regard to Russia. While Paris is more interested in security-related questions, Berlin has focused more strongly on the realms of business and energy. However, German concerns about issues of European security are growing, and there is overlap in the problems facing economic actors from both countries in the Russian context. Berlin and Paris have acquired experience of close cooperation in an area involving Russia within the Normandy Format, and have thus become more aware of each other’s perceptions and goals as regards Russia and the Eastern Neighbourhood. Furthermore, while not always enthusiastic about the Nord Stream 2 project, France has remained relatively neutral compared with many other German allies.
This complementarity makes it possible to envisage Franco-German cooperation in both the security and the economic spheres. The two countries share and claim common values and see the Franco-German partnership as both a historical and a current foundation for the EU’s sustainability and development. Both envision relations with Russia as a part of a broader discussion about Europe’s essence, future and boundaries. Both are interested in a more conducive business environment for their economic players in Moscow. These similarities could lead not only to further engagement with Russia, but also to forms of pushing back against its malign behaviour, such as in the field of illicit financial transactions. Finally, both sides have reached fairly similar assessments as to the purpose of the EU Neighbourhood policy and currently oppose new EU or NATO enlargements in the east because of political and security concerns. They thus converge in their vision of the future of the Eastern Partnership and in their willingness to pursue some kind of dialogue with Moscow, which could lead to a joint approach to Russia under the next German government.
In this sense, the proposal to the European Council that the Russian president be invited to engage in dialogue may have been a harbinger of things to come, especially under an SPD-led German coalition, as the Social Democrats have traditionally favoured increased dialogue with Moscow. However, both the Greens and the FDP advocate a tougher approach towards Russia, and since the Greens will take responsibility for the foreign ministry, elements of such an approach will no doubt be implemented. Indeed, the coalition agreement reflects the different stances on Russia present within the incoming government, and only time will reveal which aspects become dominant. On the one hand, the document indicates the three parties’ intention to cooperate in order to ensure coherent policies in all domains, and in past years the Chancellery has been deeply involved in conceiving and implementing policy regarding Russia, which suggests that the SPD could play a major role. On the other hand, it emphasizes the importance of human rights in foreign policy, the significance of democracy and the rule of law, and the fundamental nature of the transatlantic relationship, all of which would point to a harsher approach towards Russia. Similarly, the statements concerning Russia specifically show a more mixed picture. While Moscow is severely criticized for its support for Lukashenka in Belarus and its hostile actions vis-à-vis Ukraine, a desire for constructive cooperation is clearly articulated. Within the EU context, the coalition partners’ expressed willingness to take differing threat perceptions into account represents an important potential first step towards a more unified EU policy as regards Russia.
There are also important differences between Germany and France that have so far impeded the emergence of a common approach to Russia. First of all, the diplomatic style and political aims of the two sides differ greatly. Under Merkel’s leadership, Berlin was attentive to preserving unity and acting discreetly and cautiously, without renouncing the highly controversial and lucrative project of Nord Stream 2 with Russia. Under Macron’s presidency, Paris has pushed hard for a ‘differentiated Europe’, while launching a strategic dialogue with Moscow. In addition, each country has different perceptions of the role of the US and NATO. Germany tends to be a more fervent supporter of a strong role for the transatlantic relationship, and sees less urgency in the need for the EU (or even Europe) to achieve strategic autonomy. A third major difference concerns the constraints and opportunities that result from France’s status as a nuclear power, and its overseas military operations in countries where the Russian army and/or Russian private military companies are also active.
In summary, both France and Germany prefer a mixed approach to Russia involving elements of pushing back and constraining, but also a strong dose of engagement. In this sense they differ from the EU member states further to the east, several of which are suspicious of engagement and advocate focusing on forms of pushback and containment. Within Russia, the pressure on civil society and opposition forces has risen sharply over the past two years, due to the tightening of legal and regulatory mechanisms and the imprisonment of key figures. Externally, Russia has only become more aggressive, with military intimidation, political subversion and cyberattacks becoming more frequent. As long as this situation persists, the prospects for Franco-German initiatives to productively engage the Kremlin seem doomed to failure. Under these conditions, it is likely not only that there will be limited interest and impetus for such initiatives in Paris and Berlin, but also that the eastern EU member states will thwart any efforts by France or Germany to stimulate convergence on Russia at the EU level.