Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel (L) looks at French president Emmanuel Macron during a joint press conference with on the second day of a summit of European Union (EU) leaders on March 23 2018, in Brussels. / AFP / Ludovic MARIN Image Credit: AFP

On paper, the ritual was faithfully respected. The German chancellor’s fourth term begins as it should, with a mandatory first foreign visit to Paris. And this time, the conditions for a relaunch of the Franco-German alliance do indeed seem auspicious. A semblance of balance has been restored between Berlin and Paris: Germany still reigning economically, while France returns to the world stage, driven by the energy and charisma of its new young president. To put it in sports terms, Germany and France are back on the same playing field.

Our cautious optimism for the state of the alliance also rests on the worsening condition of the international and regional situation. In the time of Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, and Xi Jinping, and the rise of European populism — from Hungary to Poland, to Italy — there appears to be no other choice than to turn to Germany and France. “Europe is no longer a choice, as it might have been two years ago. It is a historical necessity,” to quote one of the last living witnesses and great actors in the European project, former French diplomat Georges Berthoin. He had the privilege of working alongside Jean Monnet and Robert Schuman on the founding of the continental union. Europe as a united continent is able to set limits for President Putin’s Russia, to propose and defend an alternative project from that of President Xi of China, and to represent a liberal democracy, respectful of both humanity and the planet.

Paradoxically, today, non-Europeans are without a doubt more open to hearing this message than many Europeans themselves. Because the misunderstanding may begin in the very heart of the European duo itself: The Franco-German couple. Emmanuel Macron’s France has an ambitious and legitimate European recovery project, from the strengthening of the single-currency Eurozone. Is Merkel’s Germany ready to join this French project?

I was in Frankfurt last week, where my German interlocutors were far from convinced. I put forward a classic argument: At the beginning of her fourth term, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has nothing to lose. What counts for her now is her legacy. Will she be perceived as the chancellor who held her own, and who then showed vision and courage in rallying behind the French project? Another scenario was opposed by many of my German counterparts, including some close to Merkel. “The chancellor is Lutheran, daughter of a pastor, she has promised before God to defend her office and the responsibilities that come with it. She is not ready to cede an ounce of her powers in favour of an integration process that she does not wholly believe.”

A man that she had helped to “politically kill,” former chancellor Helmut Kohl, knew the war, and had agreed to sacrifice the German mark on the altar of European peace. Other times, other priorities. Germany’s European passion has dried up, as the depth of its past resurfaced with hints of xenophobia and extremism. History will tell you which of these two interpretations of Germany’s intentions, positive or more prudent, is the right one.

What is certain, in such a context of uncertainty, is that Europe cannot resolve and strengthen the Eurozone powered solely by the Franco-German tandem. As legitimate and central as this priority is, it cannot let us forget an essential principle: The growing separation between the citizens, and the European dream. It is a separation driven more by a negative judgement that people have regarding the performance of Europe rather than on its essence itself.

For the first time in one of the great founding countries of the European project, populists are at the doorstep of power in Italy. And they are particularly hard populists, in the case of the Matteo Salvini’s League party. One of the major reasons for the collapse of classical parties was, of course, the mass influx of refugees along the country’s coastline. Regarding this sensitive topic, Italians felt that there was not too much, but not enough Europe. The countries of the European Union who legitimately worry about the Italian elections are paying the price for their corrosive mixture of selfishness and indifference.

If Europe really wants to revive itself, it can only do so through these conditions of solidarity and rigidity. These principles are perfectly applicable today in the crisis shaking relations between Britain and Russia, regardless of the fact that the United Kingdom has chosen to leave the European Union by way of the Brexit referendum. If London can prove that Moscow was behind the chemical attack that took place a few weeks ago in the town of Salisbury, the only dignified and responsible response is to support it in full. Putin’s Russia is testing all of Europe.

A firm stance must also apply to all those in the European Union who are deliberately violating the values that structure the “club of liberal democracies”. They cannot at the same time benefit from the economic assistance of the richest, while operating outside its system of values. Neither passivity nor indifference are options.

All of this must happen without the United States. At a time of rising despotism and populism, Europe must stand alongside Germany and France.

— Worldcrunch 2018/New York Times News Service

Dominique Moisi is senior counsellor at the Institut Montaigne in Paris.