Energy is the latest strain on the Franco-German alliance
‘The year 2022 must be a turning point for Europe,’ said Emmanuel Macron in his New Year’s Eve address as France took over of the rotating presidency of the European Union.
Naturally, Macron’s European ambitions are causing headaches in Berlin where Angela Merkel had made German leadership of the EU seem a law of nature for 16 years. Her successor Olaf Scholz is now being challenged for it. As his unreservedly Europhile administration seeks to find its feet in Europe, it will have to compete with a French president keen to appear as the man who puts France at the centre of the map — and all without visibly exacerbating the existing rifts within the EU.
But the new year has barely begun and a tussle over European energy policy is already under way between Berlin and Paris. In order to achieve its climate and energy targets for 2030, the EU is creating a ‘taxonomy’ of sustainable economy activity and, as it stands, this intends to classify nuclear energy as ‘sustainable’. This is widely perceived as a French victory given that France sources around 70% of its electricity from nuclear power plants.
Germany, on the other hand, is not amused. Just before midnight on New Year’s Eve, three more of its remaining nuclear plants were shut down, leaving only three in the country which will also be switched off by the end of the year. While Berlin dreams of a nuclear-free Europe, Paris is planning the construction of up to six new reactors.
For Germany’s Green Party this is no mere bagatelle. It was born out of anti-nuclear movements in 1980 and its instincts on the issue have changed little now that it is part of the country’s ruling coalition. The party’s co-leader Robert Habeck is the new Vice Chancellor and Minister for Economic Affairs and Climate Change. In an interview with the public German broadcaster ARD, he called the decision to classify nuclear energy as green ‘wrong’ and ‘misleading labelling’.
Germany, which aims to phase out nuclear energy by the end of 2022 and coal by 2030, intends to rely on natural gas as its transitional source of energy while renewable technologies are being built up and developed. It will rely heavily on the new gas pipeline from Russia, Nord Stream 2, which is expected to have double the capacity of the existing one. It is therefore perhaps unsurprising that Berlin has asked that gas-burning installations will also be classed as sustainable in the EU’s taxonomy.
However, these vastly diverging visions go even further than finding solutions to the energy crisis. They are also about security. While Germany seems happy to subject itself to Putin’s goodwill, Macron has promised ‘to guarantee France’s energy independence’. Both will seek to project their model out to other EU countries. In terms of foreign policy, too, France and Germany will be tied by different commitments, particularly in respect to Russia and by extension the United States which has been hugely critical of Nord Stream 2.
While Macron may see 2022 as France’s year to shape the EU and affirm its place in the world, so does the new German government. With the European power constellation hanging in the balance, an uncertain future lies ahead for the bloc.