The 25th anniversary of the Franco-German diplomat exchange programme

14.11.2011 - Interview

The diplomat exchange programme between Germany and France, which began in 1986, is the firm foundation of a unique example of cooperation based on trust.

Joint article by Harald Braun, Emily Haber, and Pierre Sellal. Harald Braun and Emily Haber are State Secretaries of the Federal Foreign Office in Berlin; Pierre Sellal is Secretary General at the Quai d’Orsay in Paris.


In Vienna in October 1986, the delegates of the third follow-up meeting of the Conference on Security and Co operation in Europe were very surprised when a French official not only spoke on behalf of the Federal Republic of Germany, but also made his speech in German. When a little later, a German official answered on behalf of the French Republic in French –bien sûr –, the conference participants were completely astonished.

What had happened? At the beginning of 1986, German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher and his French counterpart Roland Dumas had the idea of starting an exchange programme for civil servants in their Foreign Ministries. From then on the civil servants were to become more familiar with the diplomatic practice of their partner country and thus strengthen Franco-German cooperation in everyday operations – a visionary step and a further proof of the trust shared by both neighbours. The decision was taken at the Franco-German summit on 27 and 28 February 1986. In October, the first diplomats started work at the Foreign Ministries in Bonn and Paris. Soon other ministries joined the programme. That was 25 years ago. From that small starting point grew what is today one of the largest, most comprehensive programme of its kind. There is nothing else like it in the world. The Franco-German declaration of 22 January 2003 on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the Elysée Treaty not only confirmed the advantages of this exchange programme, but also gave the initiative of 1986 new impetus.

Today, the exchange programme participants are firmly integrated into the workflows of their partner offices. They participate in meetings as equals. They receive and produce internal documents. They are present at confidential discussions. They not only watch what their colleagues are doing, they also help shape the day-to-day business of the office. That makes preparing for the meetings of both Heads of State and Government and Foreign Ministers easier. But it is also important in resolving points of detail, in the difficult reconciliation between large projects and the individual steps in their implementation. The diplomats who participate in the exchange programme are both a source of new ideas and an early warning system, taking into account what is desirable and possible on both sides of the Rhine. They can quickly procure missing information, and from their special perspective, they can make suggestions and decisions understandable to the partner country. The exchange participants thus play an important, often decisive role in avoiding misunderstandings early and thus preventing potential conflicts.

The success of the exchange programme illustrates one thing above all: in the 25 years of cooperating in day-to-day diplomacy, innumerable personal contacts have been made and relationships of trust founded – connections that last long after the period of exchange is over, often for an entire working life. The experiences of individuals add up to the intimate knowledge both ministries have of each other. That helps place the close cooperation on a firm foundation for the long term. That foundation also holds when the political climate as a whole seems to turn in the opposite direction. The exchange of civil servants at all levels – from the assistant desk officers to the advisors of a State Secretary or Minister – has become one of the most valuable instruments of the Franco-German partnership.

That benefits Europe. Today more than ever it is important for Germany and France to accept their responsibility for the unity and stability of Europe and move forward holding common positions. The resolute action by Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy at the last European summits, most recently on 23 October has shown that Franco-German impetus continues to be essential for Europe’s future.

We must take good care of the unique relationship between Germany and France. In 2013 Germany and France will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Elysée Treaty, which established the contractual foundation for the Franco-German friendship. We have been able – thanks to successful programmes such as the exchange of civil servants – to fill the text of the treaty with life. We will continue to do so. It is no different than between good old friends: they pay each other visits, know each other well, and do work together. There may be differences of opinion, but there is still trust and understanding.

The authors are the three highest ranking civil servants of the German and French Foreign Ministries. Harald Braun and Emily Haber are State Secretaries of the Federal Foreign Office in Berlin; Pierre Sellal is Secretary General at the Quai d’Orsay in Paris.

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