For a European Union fragmented on many fronts, it may be time to go back to its roots – at the very heart of the Continent. On Jan. 22, the leaders of Germany and France plan to sign a treaty aimed at bringing the bloc’s two most powerful economies – and its original founders – even closer.
The two are first going local, hoping to better integrate people living close to the border. Schools on either side will be encouraged to become bilingual, for example. Joint business parks may be set up. Ambulances will be able to cross over. Basic utilities like water might be merged. The idea is to form “Eurodistricts,” or models of integration.
This “twinning” pact, negotiated over the past year, also calls for ministers to regularly sit in the cabinet meetings of each other’s government. It seeks greater unity in diplomacy and peacekeeping missions. France will push for Germany to become a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council.
Europeans often forget the EU was born out of a stunning convergence of these two nations after World War II. By the 1960s, France had largely forgiven Germany for its Nazi past and Germans showed great contrition over that past.
Such qualities of character helped suppress the militant nationalism that had sown conflicts for centuries. After World War I, says French President Emmanuel Macron, “we were unable to produce a lasting peace because France and Germany remained divided.”
The current strains within the 28-member union, such as Britain possibly exiting the bloc and the rise of anti-EU nationalist parties, have convinced Mr. Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel of the need for deeper European integration – starting with their own countries. The two plan to sign the treaty in the German city of Aachen, which has been controlled by both peoples over time. It is best known as the imperial center of Charlemagne, the great uniter of Western Europe in the late 8th century.
The signing date of Jan. 22 is also significant as it marks the 56th anniversary of the signing of the Élysée Treaty, which cemented the French-German friendship and provided the foundation for the EU.
Nearly two-thirds of EU citizens say the bloc is a good thing, according to the most recent Eurobarometer survey. But about half say the Union is “going in the wrong direction.”
With so much division – over migration, EU regulations, the euro’s woes, and anti-democratic moves in a few countries – the bloc’s two founders are like a couple who, after decades of marriage, find their extended family squabbling and splitting. So they’ve decide to remind everyone of the origin of that family by renewing their wedding vows and drawing closer. If they can speak as one even more, they will help drive the convergence that has provided a peaceful balancing of interests in Europe for so long.