These two great powers have fundamentally different visions for the continent
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and French President Emmanuel Macron met for a working lunch yesterday: two and a half hours to talk about mounting divergence in energy policy, inflation and security strategy. Germany and France have had their differences before. But this time it’s not a squabble that can be resolved over a friendly glass of Merlot.
Cracks in the relationship between the two biggest European powers have deepened to a point where they can no longer be papered over by diplomacy. While Scholz tweeted after Wednesday’s meeting that “Germany and France are standing close together,” Macron said in Brussels last week that he felt Germany was isolating itself, something that was “not good for Germany, nor for Europe.”
A joint Franco-German government meeting that normally happens at least once a year has also been postponed and even the short lunch meeting on Wednesday ended without a joint press conference, despite the fact that Berlin had previously announced that there would be one.
Those public displays of discord are more than diplomatic snubs. There simply isn’t much to discuss or announce between two leaders with conflicting visions for the future of their respective countries, as well as the European Union as a whole. Scholz and Macron disagree on practically all strategic areas of EU policy.
Take inflation and the rising cost of living. France has managed to keep its inflation at a moderate 6% compared to Germany’s 10% by capping energy bills and fuel price rebates. Germany, meanwhile, has announced a €200bn relief plan to cushion both industry and consumers from the effects of higher prices. Given the scale of the German intervention, which is worth 5% of its GDP, neither Paris nor Brussels were impressed with the move of which they had no prior knowledge. Even European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen chided Berlin’s decision to go it alone: “Without a common European solution, we seriously risk fragmentation. So it is paramount that we preserve a level playing field for all.”
France and Germany are also pulling in opposite directions when it comes to energy security. In light of the dangers of gas dependency on Russia, Macron understandably feels vindicated in his decision to build a new generation of nuclear reactors. Scholz has meanwhile decided that Germany will shut down its last reactors by April 2023, a decision that was neither negotiated with his coalition partners nor discussed with fellow EU countries. This effectively leaves France in a position where it will have relative energy independence while being politically shackled to a partner that does not.
Tied up with opposing energy strategies are differing visions for European security. In contrast to Germany, France has kept close to the minimum defence budget of 2% of GDP demanded by NATO, over 10% of which is spent on its nuclear weapons programme. It therefore feels that it has met its security obligations to its allies. Germany has now also committed to spending 2% of GDP of defence and added a €100bn boost on top. But Berlin is spending much of its increased military funding on American products such as F-35 fighter jets, while seemingly neglecting European projects like the Future Combat Air System (FCAS) it was developing with France and Spain.
France and Germany were once economic and political giants that held the EU together. Despite disagreements they found and funded bloc-wide solutions to crises. Now faced with a war in Europe and the economic, political and security-related challenges it poses, the two are drifting apart, not on details but on their fundamental visions for Europe.
If Scholz and Macron are to hold the EU together, they will have to sit their governments down together and hammer out a common vision that both can agree with. It will certainly take more than a light lunch at the Élysée Palace to restore the Franco-German entente upon which the EU hinges.