Europe

EU’s leadership couple is sleeping in separate bedrooms

Paul Taylor is a contributing editor at POLITICO.

Europe’s leadership couple has taken to sleeping in separate bedrooms.

France and Germany aren’t about to get divorced after 60 years of a political marriage that’s been central to European Union integration. Indeed, they’re still planning a diamond jubilee celebration of their founding Elysée Treaty in January — but this time around, the champagne may be sour.

There’s no real way to hide the current gulf between Berlin and Paris, present in everything from geopolitics to defense, energy policy and public finances. And though it may be a cliché, when the Franco-German engine breaks down, nothing moves forward in the EU.

Relations between the founding powers are so rocky, in fact, that a bilateral summit had to be called off in November — ostensibly due to scheduling issues, but really because there was unlikely to be much meeting of the minds. An attempt by French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz to limit the damage over a recent lunch in Paris only made matters worse.

Sources familiar with the talks said that Scholz rebuffed Macron’s pitch for a joint visit to China to present a united European front to President Xi Jinping, as the two had previously done in meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. The German leader then flew solo to Beijing with a posse of industrialists eager to secure business deals, despite growing pressure from Washington to reduce economic dependency on the communist giant.

France and Germany both have grievances about each other’s infidelities and selfishness.

Berlin is furious that France not only refused to extend an existing pipeline across the Pyrenees to pump desperately needed gas from Spain to Germany, but cut a separate deal with Madrid and Lisbon for a new underwater pipeline to deliver imported gas and, eventually, hydrogen from Barcelona to Marseille. This, despite Scholz’s public plea for the quicker MidCat solution.

Rifts on energy policy run deeper still. Germany, long dependent on Russian gas, is pursuing an accelerated transition to renewable sources, with imported liquefied natural gas — chiefly from the United States — as a temporary solution. Yet, France can’t resist reminding Germany of the unwise decisions it made to close nuclear plants and build more gas pipelines from Russia, while its own energy security is mostly based on cheap, carbon-free nuclear power — except that many of its aging plants are offline for maintenance, forcing France to import German electricity.    

On the defense front, Paris is also incensed that Germany, which created a €100 billion special fund this year to upgrade its rusting military, has splurged much of the money on U.S. aircraft, stalled a range of joint Franco-German arms cooperation projects, and blindsided France by launching a Central European missile defense initiative with 14 countries, excluding Southern Europe.

“That was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” said Shahin Vallée, head of the geo-economics program at the German Council on Foreign Relations. “The Germans did not realize how deeply they had offended France, which saw its position as the political leader in European defense go up in smoke, replaced by a German project based on U.S. and Israeli technology.”

Berlin, meanwhile, believes the origins of most of its divisions with Paris predate the arrival of Scholz’s three-party coalition — they’d long been swept under the rug by former Chancellor Angela Merkel. She preferred to paper over differences with Macron and his predecessors by crafting clever diplomatic formulas that kicked the can just far enough down the road.

Maybe so, but blaming Merkel — the knee-jerk response by Scholz’s government — isn’t going to help repair Europe’s ailing marriage. 

“We have avoided conflicts. Now, we need to find real solutions,” said a senior German source, pointing to the upcoming Franco-German-Spanish air combat system project and the future of Ariane 6 and 7 space rockets. In both cases, German lawmakers and industrialists feel they’re being asked to pay to sustain France’s technological dominance.

“The French refuse to see that they want a European defense with an exclusively French industrial backbone,” Vallée said. “The Germans refuse to say frankly what they want. They block things silently. A real compromise would require France to mutualize the resources they have put in (military aircraft manufacturer) Dassault.”

When it comes to finances, France wants the EU to borrow more money collectively and give countries more time to reduce public debt, while Germany wants to preserve stricter fiscal discipline with uniform enforcement.

Grounded in institutionalized cooperation, the Franco-German reflex to seek common solutions from very divergent starting points is still alive and kicking. Ministers and senior officials spend hours trying to reach joint positions, which often come to form the foundation for EU compromises. It is this tortured process that helped construct the bail-out mechanisms that ensured the survival of the euro zone a decade ago during the debt crisis, which threatened to blow up Europe’s common currency.

But the EU’s eastward enlargement has now made Franco-German deals — even when they can be forged — less likely to secure a consensus among the 27. This was highlighted last year when Merkel and Macron proposed the EU hold a summit to reset relations with Putin, before his invasion of Ukraine. Poland and the Baltic states led vocal opposition, and the idea was dropped.

Yet, no other EU leadership alliance has emerged in place of the broken Franco-German axis. A brief Franco-Italian honeymoon was cut short by the fall of pro-EU technocrat Mario Draghi and the election of hard-right nationalist Georgia Meloni as prime minister.

Poland and the Baltic states have tried to seize the rudder too, claiming the moral high ground, having warned the EU against Putin’s aggressive imperialist intentions. But that alliance lacks the economic weight and political connections to lead — not least because Warsaw’s conservative nationalist Law and Justice (PiS) government is in the EU doghouse after trampling judicial independence.

A German-Polish alliance will also remain unthinkable so long as PiS leader Jarosław Kaczyński is Poland’s de facto ruler, demanding $1.3 trillion in reparations for World War II.

The one other leadership couple that could, theoretically, drive the EU forward is the tandem of European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and European Council President Charles Michel — if they weren’t pedaling briskly in opposite directions. But the two are locked in a long-running feud, refusing to even share speaking notes with each other when they represent the bloc at international events.

For the most part, U.S. President Joe Biden has made von der Leyen’s number the one he calls when he wants to talk to Europe. But without better Franco-German understanding, she will undoubtedly struggle to deliver.




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