German Chancellor Olaf Schulz and French President Emmanuel Macron will meet in Paris after signs emerged of a worsening rift between the two countries.
A French-German ministerial meeting – which had been long due to take place this week – was postponed to next January at short notice.
The Elysee Palace was quick to put this move in the category of difficulties in scheduling a number of ministers and the lack of time to prepare for the meeting. “The delay in no way gives an indication of the current state of the Franco-German relationship,” a spokeswoman told the press last week, adding that it was merely a delay and not a cancellation.
But her statement – and then the hastily scheduled visit of German Chancellor Olaf Schulz to Paris on Wednesday – failed to impress analysts.
The alliance between Germany and France is often described as the “engine” of the European Union, and analysts say the current row is undermining the EU’s ability to act.
“The Franco-German ministerial meeting in general does not yield many tangible results apart from unnecessary decisions, such as the establishment of common language courses, and is an occasion to reiterate the two countries’ commitment to close cooperation,” said Stefan Seydendorf, Deputy Director of the German Franco Institute, or DFI, said. It is a research center based in Ludwigsburg.
“But these meetings and Franco-German cooperation are essential to the work of the European Union – and no meeting has been canceled since the first in 1963,” he told DW.
Seidendorf explained that what works for the United States in foreign policy does not work in Europe. The United States assumes it can act on its own, because it is big enough for other countries to see its actions as an example.
“But no European country is large enough to ensure political stability on its own and we need a basic consensus between France and Germany, the two largest economies in the bloc, which also represent the two most divergent views. Other member states support this compromise,” Seidendorf pointed out.
France and Germany, they both work alone
For now, both Germany and France seem to prefer to forge their own independent paths.
Berlin recently voted on an emergency package of 200 billion euros ($197 billion) to help counter soaring gas and electricity prices at home, without informing France. That would have been a general courtesy, especially since such an amount is likely to distort the market.
Moreover, at the last NATO meeting, Germany signed an agreement with 14 other NATO countries and Finland on a new air defense system called the European Sky Shield Initiative, or ESSI. The initiative aims to establish a joint air defense program on the continent. But France is not included.
This is despite the fact that France is already working on developing the so-called Mamba air missile defense shield with Italy.
Since the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February of this year, military defense has acquired new importance.
Meanwhile, French President Emmanuel Macron, during the EU Heads of State and Government summit last week, announced an agreement with Spain and Portugal to build a new hydrogen and gas pipeline between Barcelona and Marseille. This project buries the so-called Midcat pipeline that would have connected Spain to France via the Pyrenees. Berlin preferred this pipeline, most likely in the hope that Germany would eventually benefit from Iberian gas as well.
The French president also conducted a direct excavation of his supposed ally. “It will not be good for Germany or for Europe when Germany isolates itself,” he said.
No time to smile
“Both sides are angry at each other,” Seidendorf commented.
“Germany seems to think that it can reach multilateral agreements with other small countries and circumvent France. France is still waiting for Germany to accept Macron’s pledge for deeper European integration that he made during his speech at the Sorbonne in 2017,” the political scientist added. At the time, the French president demanded the entire eurozone budget and stronger military and tax cooperation, among other things.
But Sophie Bornschlegel, senior policy analyst at the Brussels-based think tank, the Center for European Policy, doesn’t find the two-pout show particularly interesting. “We don’t have time for this – there is war in Europe and we are facing an energy crisis,” she told DW.
“If we are lucky, and it is not too cold in the coming months, we will get through this winter. But we will need a long-term solution to deal with high energy prices through, for example, the EU Solidarity Fund.”
Pornschlegel added that otherwise energy would become too expensive, leading to an economic crisis and more unemployment.
The current rift in Europe is playing its part [Russian leader] “Vladimir Putin’s hands are restricting the European Union’s ability to act,” she said.
Much deeper odds?
France and Germany have areas where they traditionally differ, such as energy. For example, France supports nuclear energy while Germany opposes it.
But, as Jacques-Pierre Goujon, an expert on Germany at the Paris-based Institute of International and Strategic Relations, has pointed out, the current crisis appears to be deeper than previous controversies.
“The disagreement is particularly serious, with some smaller EU member states, such as Poland and the Baltic states, questioning Franco-German leadership,” Goujon told DW.
Ronja Kempin, a senior fellow at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin, believes that the current argument reflects a deeper and more fundamental disagreement.
She explained to DW.
“Germany, on the other hand, sees EU enlargement as a means of transformation and bringing peace to countries,” she added.
Looking on the bright side
DFI’s Seidendorf continues to see a positive side.
“German and French heads of state have often had to go through a learning curve to understand that the European Union cannot function without the French and German couple.”
Seidendorf noted that former German leader Ludwig Erhard, who was in power in the 1960s, and former French leader Nicolas Sarkozy, who was president between 2007 and 2012, should have known this as well.
He admitted that it is “extremely difficult” to compromise with an ally who disagrees with you in certain key areas. “But in the end they all come.”
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