BERLIN / PARIS – Relations are now so frozen between Emmanuel Macron and Olaf Scholz, the leaders of the two economic powers of the EU, that they don’t even dare to be seen together in front of the press.
The French president and the German chancellor held a tête-à-tête in Paris on Wednesday, but there was no joint press conference in front of cameras, which is normally the drier of the routine diplomatic courtesies after meetings bilateral. Berlin had previously announced that such a press appearance was to take place. Then the Elysée Palace met him.
After the working lunch concluded, officials from both sides – who did not want to be identified – maintained that the meeting was a success.
“He was very constructive, very strategic,” said one of Macron’s advisers. “We all had our nose at the source of energy, and today we can raise the conversation, and discuss what we want to do in five, ten years.” According to a German official, the meeting was “a complete success.”
But the canceled press conference told its own story as a snub to Scholz. He had traveled with a full press corps to Paris, and from there continued to Athens for another state visit. Denying a press conference to a visiting leader is a political tactic that is usually applied to deliver a rebuke, as was recently done by Scholz when Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán visited Berlin.
“Presumably, there has so far been a lack of contact and exchange between the respective new government teams of Scholz and Macron,” said Sandra Weeser of Germany’s Free Democratic Party, which sits on the board of the Franco-German Parliamentary Assembly. “So, we are certainly also at the beginning of new interpersonal political relations, for which trust must first be built.”
The brawl over a media show is just the latest episode in a deep row between the EU’s two biggest powers.
In recent weeks, Scholz and Macron have clashed over how to tackle the energy crisis, how to overcome Europe’s impotence in defense and the best approach to dealing with China.
Last week, those tensions spilled into the open when a planned Franco-German Cabinet meeting in the French city of Fontainebleau was postponed until January amid major differences over the text of a joint statement, as well as the conflicting vacation plans of some German ministers. The disagreement between the two governments was also widely visible at last week’s EU summit in Brussels.
The war in Ukraine and the inflation and energy crisis have strained European alliances, just when they are most needed. What has always been a vital alliance between Paris and Berlin has seemed discordant at best.
French officials complain that Berlin does not treat them as a close partner enough. For example, the French say they were not informed in advance of Germany’s 200 billion euro domestic energy price relief package – and have made sure their counterparts in Berlin are aware of its frustration
“In my discussions with French parliamentarians, it became clear that people in Paris want closer and closer coordination with Germany,” said Chantal Kopf, an MP from the Greens, one of the three parties in the governing coalition. in Germany, and member of the board of the Franco-German Parliamentary Assembly.
“So far, this cooperation has always worked well in times of crisis – think, for example, of the recovery fund during the coronavirus crisis – and now the French also want answers to the current energy crisis, or how to deals with China. , to be closely coordinated,” said Kopf.
A similar conclusion was drawn by Weeser from the FDP, another coalition partner in the Berlin government. “Paris is irritated by Germany’s only restraint on gas prices and the lack of support for joint European defense technology projects,” he said. At the same time, he accused the French government of having, until recently, dragged its feet on a new pipeline connection between the Iberian peninsula and Northern Europe.
The French government was recently irked by news that Scholz plans to visit Beijing next week to meet Xi Jinping in what would be the first visit by a foreign leader since the Chinese president’s rule-breaking third term. Germany and China are also planning their own show when it comes to government consultations scheduled for January.
The thinking at the Elysée is that it would be better if Macron and Scholz visited China together – and preferably a little later instead of right after the Chinese Communist Party congress where Xi secured another mandate. According to a French official, a visit shortly after the congress would “legitimize” Xi’s third term and be “too politically costly”.
Germany and France’s uncoordinated approach to China contrasts with Xi’s last visit to Europe in 2019 when he was hosted by Macron, who also invited former Chancellor Angela Merkel and former European Commission President Jean -Claude Juncker in Paris to demonstrate European unity.
Macron refrained from directly criticizing a controversial Hamburg port deal with the Chinese company Cosco, which Scholz is pushing ahead of his trip to Beijing. But the French president last week questioned the wisdom of letting China invest in “essential infrastructure” and warned that Europe had been “naive” towards Chinese purchases in the past “because we thought Europe was an open supermarket”.
Jean-Louis Thiériot, vice-chairman of the defense committee in the French National Assembly, said that Germany was increasingly focusing on defense in Eastern Europe at the expense of joint German-French projects. For example, Berlin signed an agreement with 13 NATO members, many of them on the Northern and Eastern European flank, to jointly acquire an air and missile defense shield – much to the chagrin of France.
“The situation is unprecedented,” said Thiériot. “The tension is now worse and rapidly. In the last two months, Germany decided to finish the work on the [Franco-German] Tiger helicopter, joint navy patrols down… And air defense shield signing is a death blow [to the defense relationship]”, he said.
Germany’s massive investment through a €100 billion military upgrade fund, as well as Scholz’s commitment to NATO’s goal of putting 2 percent of GDP into defense spending, it will probably increase the annual defense budget to more than 80 billion euros and means that Berlin will be on course. to outgun France’s defense budget of 44 billion euros.
Last week’s suspension of the joint Franco-German Cabinet meeting was by no means the first clash between Berlin and Paris when it comes to high-level meetings.
In August, the question was whether Scholz and Macron would meet in Ludwigsburg on September 9 for the 60th anniversary of a famous speech by former French president Charles de Gaulle in the palatial southwestern German city. But despite the highly symbolic nature of that ceremony, the leaders’ meeting never happened – with officials presenting conflicting accounts of why that was the case, from scheduling conflicts to alleged disagreements over who should shoulder the costs.
At the end of last month, Paris felt snubbed by Berlin when Scholz did not find time to speak to French Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne: A meeting between the two leaders in Berlin was canceled because the chancellor had tested positive for coronavirus. But several French officials told POLITICO that a video conference later was also canceled, allegedly because the Germans told Borne’s office that Scholz was feeling too ill.
Paris was even more surprised – and annoyed – when Scholz appeared the same day via video at a press conference, in which he did not seem so ill, but instead confidently announced his 200 billion d energy relief package euros. The French say they were not even informed beforehand. A German spokesman declined to comment.
Yannick Bury, a German center-right opposition lawmaker who focuses on Franco-German relations, said Scholz should start rebuilding ties with Macron. “It is important that France receives a clear signal that Germany has a great interest in a close and trusting exchange.” Bury said. “Trust has been broken.”