BERLIN/PARIS – Relations between the leaders of the EU’s two economic powers, Emmanuel Macron and Olaf Scholz, are now so icy that they dare not appear together in front of the press.
The French president and German chancellor held a tete-a-tete in Paris on Wednesday, but there was no joint news conference in front of the cameras, which is usually dry of routine diplomatic courtesies after bilateral meetings. Berlin had already announced that such a press demonstration would be held. The Elysée Palace later rejected it.
At the conclusion of the working lunch, officials from both sides – who did not want to be identified – argued that the meeting had been a success.
“It was very structured, very strategic,” said one of Macron’s advisers. “We all have our noses on energy and today we were able to elevate the conversation and discuss what we want to do in five, ten years.” According to the German official, the meeting was “completely successful.”
But the canceled press conference told its own story as a snub to Scholz. He traveled to Paris with a full press corps and from there proceeded to Athens for another state visit. Denying a press conference to a visiting leader is a political tactic often used to deliver condemnation, as Scholz recently did when Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán visited Berlin.
“Possibly, there has so far been a lack of contact and exchange between Scholz and Macron’s respective new government teams,” said Sandra Wieser of Germany’s liberal Free Democratic Party, who sits on the board of the Franco-German parliamentary assembly. “Therefore, we are definitely at the beginning of new mutual political relations, for which trust must first be built.”
The row over the media show is the latest episode in a deepening row between the EU’s two biggest powers.
In recent weeks, Scholz and Macron have clashed over how to deal with the energy crisis, how to overcome Europe’s vulnerability on defense and the best way to deal with China.
Last week, those tensions spilled over publicly when a planned Franco-German cabinet meeting in the French town of Fontainebleau was postponed until January amid major differences in the text of the joint declaration and conflicting vacation plans by some German ministers. Disagreement between the two governments was widely visible at last week’s EU summit in Brussels.
The war in Ukraine and the inflation and energy crisis have strained Europe’s alliances when they were most needed. A key alliance between Paris and Berlin has always seemed at odds.
French officials have complained that Berlin is not treating them as close partners enough. For example, the French claim they were not informed in advance of Germany’s domestic €200 billion energy price relief package – and they have made sure their counterparts in Berlin are aware of their frustration.
“In my talks with French MPs, it’s clear that people in Paris want more and closer coordination with Germany,” said Chantal Koff, a lawmaker and board member of the Greens, one of the three parties in Germany’s ruling coalition. Franco-German Parliamentary Assembly.
“So far, this cooperation has always worked well in times of crisis – for example, think of the recovery fund during the coronavirus crisis – and now even the French want responses to the current energy crisis, or how to deal with China, to be closely coordinated,” Koff said.
Wieser is drawing a similar conclusion from the FDP, another coalition partner in the Berlin government. “Paris is irritated by Germany’s go-it-anything over the gas price break and the lack of support for joint European defense technology projects,” he said. At the same time, he accused the French government of dragging its feet until recently on a new pipeline link between the Iberian Peninsula and northern Europe.
More recently, the French government was irked by news that Scholz plans to visit Beijing next week to meet with Xi Jinping, the first meeting between a foreign leader since the Chinese president took office for a third term. Germany and China plan their own showdown when it comes to planned government consultations in January.
The thinking at the Élysée was that Macron and Scholz would have been better off visiting China together — and shortly after Xi secured another mandate directly after the Chinese Communist Party congress. According to one French official, the visit shortly after the congress would “legitimize” Xi’s third term and be “politically very expensive.”
Germany and France’s disjointed approach to China contrasts with Xi’s last visit to Europe in 2019, when he welcomed Macron, who invited former Chancellor Angela Merkel and former European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker to Paris to show European unity.
Macron has refrained from directly criticizing the controversial Hamburg port deal with Chinese company Cosco, which Scholz is pushing ahead of the Beijing trip. But the French president last week questioned the wisdom of allowing China to invest in “essential infrastructure” and warned that Europe had been “naive” about Chinese purchases in the past “because we thought of Europe as an open supermarket.”
Jean-Louis Thieriot, vice-chairman of the defense committee in the French National Assembly, said Germany was focusing too much on defense at the expense of joint German-French projects in Eastern Europe. For example, Berlin struck a deal with 13 NATO members, many of them on the northern and eastern European flanks, to jointly acquire an air and missile defense shield – much to France’s annoyance.
“The situation is unprecedented,” Thieriot said. “Tensions are now getting worse and faster. In the last two months, Germany decided to end the work. [Franco-German] Tiger helicopter, joint naval patrols dropped…and signature of air defense shield is a death sentence [to the defense relationship],” he said.
Germany’s massive investment through a €100 billion military upgrade fund, as well as Scholz’s commitment to a NATO goal of putting 2 percent of GDP toward defense spending, could increase the annual defense budget to €80 billion and Berlin is on course to surpass France’s €44 billion defense budget.
Note of illness
Last week’s suspension of a joint Franco-German cabinet meeting was not the first clash between Berlin and Paris when it came 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 former French president Charles de Gaulle’s famous speech in the palatial southwest German town. But despite the highly symbolic nature of that ceremony, the leaders’ meeting never happened — officials presented conflicting accounts of why it happened, from hiring conflicts to disagreements over who should cover the costs.
At the end of last month, Paris was robbed of Berlin when Scholz did not have time to speak with French Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne: a meeting between the two leaders in Berlin was canceled because the chancellor had tested positive for the coronavirus. But several French officials told POLITICO that a subsequently arranged video conference was also canceled because the Germans told Born’s office that Scholz was too ill.
Paris was even more surprised – and annoyed – when Scholz appeared via video at a press conference the same day, in which he appeared not to be ill, but instead confidently announced his €200 billion energy bailout package. The French say they were not informed beforehand. A German spokesman declined to comment.
Yannick Bari, a lawmaker from Germany’s center-right opposition who focuses on Franco-German relations, said Scholz should start rebuilding ties with Macron. “It is important for France to get a clear signal that Germany is very interested in a close and reliable exchange” Barry said. “Trust is broken.”