The chill in relations between Europe’s two great powers, France and Germany, thawed slightly on Friday, though profound disagreement remains over energy and defence policy.
As the old cliche has it, the Franco-German “couple” is the “engine” of Europe. Differences between President Emmanuel Macron and chancellor Olaf Scholz can only play into the hands of Vladimir Putin while the war continues in Ukraine.
Macron and Scholz seemed to want to lower tension when they met on the sidelines of the European summit in Brussels late on Thursday. Their half-hour meeting “made it possible to clarify many things”, Macron said.
An overnight agreement between EU leaders on a “road map” which aims to limit rising energy costs contributed to the perception of a receding crisis, but there is still no consensus on the so-called Iberian mechanism to cap gas prices, which is advocated by France and opposed by Germany.
Berlin announced on Wednesday night that a meeting of the Franco-German Council of Ministers, which was to have taken place in Fontainebleau on October 26th, would be postponed until an unspecified date in January, a move unprecedented since the annual meeting of the two governments was established by former president Jacques Chirac in 2003.
Scholz subsequently agreed to a bilateral meeting with Macron in Paris next Wednesday.
Reliance on Russia
France has for months attributed difficulties in the relationship to divergent policies of the three political parties who share power in Berlin, and to the fact that Germany is severely affected by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine because of its reliance on Russian gas.
French understanding seemed to evaporate this week, when Paris signalled that Germany has become an obstacle to European solidarity. Officials portrayed Germany as an egotistical country which has chosen to go it alone in the Ukraine crisis. France objects to the fact that, as the French MEP Pascal Canfin said on Friday, “There is one country which has massively bought gas all over the world, alone, and that country is called Germany.”
“We cannot continue with national policies which create distortion on the European continent,” Macron told the economic daily Les Échos on Tuesday. “Europe shows solidarity towards Germany, so it would be normal for Germany to show solidarity towards Europe.”
Macron added two days later in Brussels that “It is good neither for Germany nor for Europe for [Germany] to isolate itself… Our role is to do everything to attain European unity, and for Germany to be part of it.”
“Germany has always shown solidarity,” Scholz responded.
France was angered that Scholz did not consult Paris before announcing at the end of September that his government would spend €200 billion in energy price subsidies for consumers.
‘Redefinition of relations’
French finance minister Bruno Le Maire admitted in an interview with the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung that the German plan is not fundamentally different a French anti-inflation package costing €100 billion.
Le Maire called for “a strategic redefinition of relations between France and Germany… a new alliance… by making a reset on a certain number of points”.
Most of the differences concern energy policy. France sees nuclear power as the solution to the energy crisis. Although it has prolonged the life of its last three reactors, Germany still intends to abandon nuclear power over the long term.
France and Germany also disagreed on the MidCat [Midi-Catalogna] gas pipeline which France opposed on the grounds that it would damage the Pyrenees mountains. The project was cancelled by Paris, Madrid and Lisbon on Thursday morning, without consulting Berlin. Germany hoped to import gas through the pipeline. A new pipeline will instead go under the Mediterranean.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has also aggravated profound differences over defence policy, with Germany placing greater trust in the Atlantic alliance and France favouring a sovereign European defence.
French officials note that Scholz did not even mention Franco-German defence co-operation in a speech on Germany’s vision of Europe in Prague on August 29th. Projects for a Franco-German fighter aircraft and main battle tank have stalled.
France was deeply annoyed that Scholz negotiated the “European Sky Shield Initiative”. Announced on October 13th, the project brings together 14 Nato countries for the joint acquisition of an air and missile defence shield comprising German, American and possibly Israeli systems.