Macron and Scholz agree to mediate in Ukraine border crisis

German chancellor and French president look to ‘Normandy format’ to reduce tensions

President Emmanuel Macron and chancellor Olaf Scholz agreed to relaunch Franco-German mediation in the crisis between Russia and Ukraine when Mr Scholz visited the Élysée Palace for the first time as Germany's new leader on Friday.

"The Normandy format remains as relevant as ever, because it enables Germany and France to mediate between Ukraine and Russia," Mr Macron said. The Franco-German effort and direct talks between US president Joe Biden and Russian president Vladimir Putin earlier this week were "complementary", he said.

The “Normandy format” was an attempt to stop the war in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine. It started during D-Day celebrations in Normandy in 2014 and brought together the leaders of Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany. It has been frozen for two years.

A build-up of Russian troops and armour on Ukraine's borders has sparked fears that Vladimir Putin is preparing to invade the country. Mr Biden spent two hours in a video call with Mr Putin on December 7th. The US leader briefed the leaders of France, Germany, Britain and Italy – known as the Quint – before and after his talks with Mr Putin.


Putin and Washington

The Biden-Putin talks seemed to have sidelined the Normandy format. An adviser to Mr Macron said negotiations could not succeed without Ukraine and Europe, and described the Franco-German initiative as "a test for the Europeans: how to dissuade Russia from playing with the security of the continent; how to engage with President Putin and what to do if he goes too far".

Mr Putin is believed to want to exclude Ukraine and Europe, and deal directly with Washington.

Mr Macron spoke to Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky by telephone on Friday. "The two presidents agreed on the necessity of restarting negotiations in the so-called Normandy format, with the mediation of France and Germany," said a statement from the Élysée.

Mr Macron will talk with Mr Putin in coming days and will meet Mr Zelensky in Brussels on December 15th.

Negotiations stalled because Russia did not carry out promised political and security measures in Donbas, and because Ukraine tried to invert the sequence of a peace plan established by then German foreign minister, now president, Frank-Walter Steinmeier in 2016. The steps are the disarmament of militias, municipal elections and the return of displaced Ukrainians to the border area.

“As mediators, we need to tell the Russians: ‘Fulfil the obligations you made in Paris’, and we need to tell the Ukrainians: ‘Don’t change the rules of the game because you give the Russians a pretext to wriggle out of their commitments’,” said the adviser to Mr Macron.

“We do not see big troop movements,” the adviser continued. “There is a higher concentration of Russian troops than usual . . . The observation shared by Americans, Germans and us is that there are not preparations for an immediate war . . . The problem is the volatility that goes with the absence of negotiations and the risk of a misinterpretation.”

‘Political fiction’

Asked what France would do if Russia invaded Ukraine, Mr Macron said it was important to avoid self-realising prophecies. Europeans and Americans were determined to avoid escalation. “I am not going to enter into a game of political fiction that would raise tensions,” he said.

The French and German leaders were eager to show a seamless transition from the 16-year era of Angela Merkel to the new "traffic-light coalition" in Berlin, whose principal members are the SPD chancellor, a Green foreign minister and an economic liberal as finance minister.

Mr Macron is at the same time a social democrat, an environmentalist and an economic liberal.

On Thursday, Mr Macron spoke of the need to "rethink the budgetary framework" of the EU, whose Maastricht criteria set a 3 per cent limit on deficit spending and capped debt at 60 per cent of gross domestic product. Those criteria were virtually abandoned during the pandemic. Mr Macron's administration no longer refers to "debt" but to "investment".

Mr Scholz said it was important “to maintain the growth that has been engendered by the [€750 billion European] recovery plan. We must at the same time work on the solidity of our finances. That is not contradictory. I am certain we will reach shared concepts on this question.”

Lara Marlowe

Lara Marlowe

Lara Marlowe is an Irish Times contributor