German chancellor, Olaf Scholz, arrived in Paris today for a hastily scheduled lunch with French president, Emmanuel Macron, in a bid to find common ground amid a deepening rift between Europe’s two powerhouses.
It was all smiles and enthusiastic waves as Macron and Scholz posed for photos outside the Elysee Palace but behind the facade lies a cross-Rhine relationship which Le Figaro newspaper has gone so far as to describe as “glacial.”
The “working lunch,” in itself is symbolic of the rift: it is a downgraded replacement for the routine Franco-German cabinet meeting, called off last week amid recriminations between the two.
Scant details have emerged of what really went on behind the scenes today but they both put on a brave face. After the meeting, Scholz stated that: “Germany and France stand close together and are tackling challenges together.”
But from energy to defence to China, Scholz and his French counterpart seem to be increasingly pulling in different directions.
The war in Ukraine has heightened these differences. The bloc is struggling, for instance, to reach an agreement on whether to cap gas prices in response to Russian aggression, not helped by the fact Germany has come out against the policy which France supports.
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France seems to think that Germany has failed to learn valuable lessons from the war. Macron believes Putin’s weaponisation of gas has made the need to strengthen European self-reliance on energy, defence and trade, crystal clear. He is frustrated that Scholz has signed a controversial deal allowing Chinese company, Cosco, to buy a stake in Germany’s largest port – once again, increasing dependance on a threatening superpower.
It seems as though Macron feels snubbed in the once close relationship between the two countries, fearful that Germany is ever keener to go its own way.
Scholz’s failure to consult Macron on policies which will inevitably impact France has made relations worse. Indeed, when Germany unveiled a 200 billion euro package to shield businesses and households from the energy crisis, the French president was reportedly seething that he only learnt about it in the press. Paris believes the generous package threatens the European Union’s single market by handing an unfair advantage to German companies.
It’s worth remembering that Macron and Scholz’s predecessor, Angela Merkel, reportedly exchanged texts every single day.
Berlin officials are playing down the rift, with some adding that Macron should understand that Scholz is dealing with a tricky coalition which complicates decision-making and necessitates Berlin to be more inward-looking.
Yet France has been more vocal about the bruised relations: “It’s neither good for Germany nor for Europe when Germany isolates itself,” Macron has said.
Will today’s tete-a-tete help the two find a way back to much-needed unity?
Macron may be angry but at least his frustration shows that France is still invested in the bilateral relationship. Arguably, it is Scholz who needs to prove he is equally committed to mending the rift.
Let’s hope he manages to. The partnership between Berlin and Paris is often described as “the engine” of the European Union. As Europe contends with Russia’s war on its eastern fringe and a brewing eurozone crisis, divorce would be a dangerous choice for the Franco-German couple.
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