Crisis loosens Franco-German bond

Media playback is unsupported on your device
Media captionChris Morris in Marseille and Matthew Price in Hamburg see how the numbers stack up ahead of elections in France and Germany

We're starting our election journey in France and Germany because these are the two countries in the European Union that matter most.

Sure, over the next few years there will be huge debate about Britain, and whether it stays in the EU or leaves. Britain remains an important power in Europe - one of the Big Three - but it has always been ambivalent.

That's why there has always been so much attention on the EU's "Franco-German motor". The Union works best when Paris and Berlin co-operate - and though they've tried to do that over the last few years, the eurozone crisis has exposed important flaws.

Most obviously, it's become apparent that Germany is the EU's predominant economic power. French dreams of parity are just that - dreams.

There's also been an important institutional shift in Brussels - with power moving away from the European Commission towards the member states in the European Council.

Put all that together, and Germany's central role in Europe is now clear. France is struggling to compete on all sorts of levels.

In foreign and defence policy, France and the UK still reign supreme. But the eurozone crisis has made the economy the defining issue of the last five years, and it is Germany that is pulling the strings.

French caution

After the European elections, the German government wants to take rapid strides towards a more centralised eurozone. The Finance Minister, Wolfgang Schaeuble, has spoken of the need to create a budget commissioner, with greater power to reject national budgets in the eurozone if member states don't stick to the rules.

France has gone along with the German plan, but it remains far more cautious. It doesn't want outsiders telling it what to do.

Media playback is unsupported on your device
Media captionChris Morris visits a market in Marseille to see why the National Front is growing in popularity

The next European Parliament will have a view on all this. Many MEPs will welcome moves towards fiscal union, but if there are also more MEPs who are less receptive to Germany's specific economic vision for Europe that will matter.

Since the Lisbon Treaty came into force in 2009, the parliament has more power than ever before - more responsibility for passing new laws, more budgetary oversight, and the right to propose treaty changes.

It seems to be ready for a fight about the right to choose the next Commission president, as well.

Some member states find this newly assertive attitude more than a little frustrating. But even the largest of them know that they will need to keep the parliament "on-side" if they want to make progress.

And then of course there is a larger question: can politicians - whether in Paris or Berlin, Brussels or London - persuade the people they've been elected to serve that they are taking Europe in the right direction?

Related Topics