BERLIN/PARIS — Relations are now so icy between Emmanuel Macron and Olaf Scholz, the leaders of the EU’s two economic powerhouses, that they are even struggling to agree on whether to be seen together in front of the press.
As the French president and German chancellor prepared for a tête-à-tête in Paris on Wednesday, Berlin announced that they would make a joint appearance in front of the cameras, which is normally the driest of routine diplomatic courtesies after bilateral meetings.
But on Tuesday evening, a statement from the French Elysée Palace contradicted the German announcement, saying there was no press conference planned.
If confirmed, it would be quite a snub for Scholz, who’s traveling with an entire press corps to Paris, and from there continuing to Athens for another state visit. Denying a press conference to a visiting leader is a political tactic that’s generally 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 from Germany’s liberal Free Democratic Party, who 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 tussle over a media show is just the latest episode of a deepening 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 on defense and the best approach to dealing with China.
Last week, those tensions spilled into public when a planned Franco-German Cabinet meeting in the French town of Fontainebleau was postponed to January amid major differences on the text of a joint declaration, as well as conflicting holiday plans of some German ministers. Disagreement between the two governments was also broadly visible at last week’s EU summit in Brussels.
As Scholz and Macron meet in Paris on Wednesday for a “working lunch,” which has been hastily set up as a downgraded replacement for the scrapped Cabinet meeting, politicians and officials across Europe will be closely watching to see whether the bloc’s two heavyweights can find a way back to much-needed unity. The war in Ukraine and the inflation and energy crisis have strained European alliances, just when they are most needed.
French officials complain that Berlin isn’t sufficiently treating them as a close partner. For example, the French claim they weren’t briefed 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 parliamentarians, it has become clear that people in Paris want more and closer coordination with Germany,” said Chantal Kopf, a lawmaker from the Greens, one of the three parties in Germany’s ruling coalition, and a board member 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 rightly want the responses to the current energy crisis, or how to deal with China, to be closely coordinated,” Kopf said.
A similar conclusion is being drawn by Weeser from the FDP, another coalition partner in the Berlin government. “Paris is irritated by Germany’s go-it-alone on the gas price brake and the lack of support for joint European defense technology projects,” she said. At the same time, she accused the French government of having until recently dragged its feet on a new pipeline connection between the Iberian peninsula and Northern Europe.
Most recently, the French government was irritated by the 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 got a norm-breaking third term. Germany and China also plan their own show when it comes to planned government consultations in January.
The thinking at the Elysée is that it would have been better if Macron and Scholz had visited China together — and preferably a bit later rather than straight after China’s Communist Party congress where Xi secured another mandate. According to one 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 welcomed by Macron, who had also 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 a controversial Hamburg port deal with Chinese company Cosco, which Scholz is pushing ahead of his Beijing trip. But the French president last week questioned the wisdom of letting China invest in “essential infrastructure” and warned that Europe had been “naive” toward Chinese purchases in the past “because we thought Europe was an open supermarket.”
Jean-Louis Thiériot, vice president of the defense committee in the French National Assembly, said Germany was increasingly focusing on defense in Eastern Europe at the expense of joint German-French projects. For example, Berlin inked a deal 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 annoyance of France.
“The situation is unprecedented,” Thiériot said. “Tensions are now getting worse and quickly. In the last couple of months, Germany decided to end work on the [Franco-German] Tiger helicopter, dropped joint navy patrols … And the signature of the air defense shield is a deathblow [to the defense relationship],” he said.
Germany’s massive investment through a €100 billion military upgrade fund, as well as Scholz’s commitment to the NATO goal of putting 2 percent of GDP toward defense spending, will likely raise the annual defense budget to above €80 billion and means Berlin will be on course to outgun France’s €44 billion defense budget.
Last week’s suspension of the joint Franco-German Cabinet meeting wasn’t by far the first clash between Berlin and Paris when it comes to high-level meetings.
Back 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 town. 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 appointment conflicts to alleged disagreements over who should shoulder the costs.
Late last month, Paris felt snubbed by Berlin when Scholz found no time to speak to French Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne: A meeting between both leaders in Berlin had been canceled because the chancellor had tested positive for coronavirus. But several French officials told POLITICO that a subsequently arranged videoconference was also canceled, allegedly because the Germans told Borne’s office that Scholz felt too sick.
Paris was even more surprised — and annoyed — when Scholz then appeared the same day via video at a press conference, in which he didn’t seem to be quite so sick, but instead confidently announced his €200 billion energy relief package. The French say they weren’t even briefed beforehand. A German spokesperson could not be reached for a comment on the incident.
Yannick Bury, a lawmaker from Germany’s center-right opposition who focuses on Franco-German relations, said Scholz must use his visit to Paris to start rebuilding ties with Macron. “It’s 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.”
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