BERLIN/PARIS — Now relations between Emmanuel Macron and Olaf Scholz, the leaders of the EU’s two economic powers, are so icy that they don’t even dare to be seen together in front of the press.
The French president and the German chancellor held a tete-a-tete in Paris on Wednesday, but there was no joint press conference in front of the cameras, usually the dryest of routine diplomatic courtesies after bilateral meetings. Berlin had previously announced that there would be such an appearance in front of the media. Then the Elysée Palace turned it off.
After the working lunch, officials from both sides – who did not want to be identified – said the meeting had been a success.
“It was very constructive, very strategic,” said one of Macron’s advisers. “We were all focused on energy and today we were able to raise the conversation and discuss what we want to do in five, ten years.” According to a German official, the meeting was “a complete success.”
But the canceled press conference told its own story as a snub to Scholz. He had traveled with a full press corps to Paris, and from there proceeded to Athens for another state visit. Denying a visiting leader a press conference is a political tactic usually used to deliver a reprimand, as Scholz recently did when Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán visited Berlin.
“It is believed that until now there has been a lack of contact and exchange between the respective new government teams of Scholz and Macron,” said Sandra Wieser of Germany’s liberal Free Democratic Party, which sits on the board of the Franco-German Parliamentary Assembly. “So we are certainly also at the beginning of a new interpersonal political relationship, for which trust must first be built.”
The dispute over a media show is just 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 defense impotence and the best approach to dealing with China.
Last week, those tensions spilled into the open when a planned meeting of the Franco-German cabinet in the French city of Fontainebleau was postponed until January amid major differences over the text of a joint declaration, as well as conflicting holiday plans for some German ministers. The differences between the two governments were also widely visible at last week’s EU summit in Brussels.
The war in Ukraine and the inflation and energy crisis have strained European unions just when they are most needed. What has always been a vital alliance between Paris and Berlin seems contradictory at best.
French officials complain that Berlin does not treat them as a close partner enough. For example, the French say they were not informed in advance of Germany’s €200bn domestic energy price relief package – and made sure their counterparts in Berlin were aware of their disappointment.
“In my conversations with French parliamentarians, it became clear that people in Paris want more and closer coordination with Germany,” said Chantal Kopf, an MP for the Greens, one of the three parties in Germany’s ruling coalition, and a board member of the French- the 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 answers to the current energy crisis or how to deal with China to be closely coordinated Kopf said.
A similar conclusion was drawn by Weeser of the FDP, another coalition partner in the Berlin government. “Paris is irritated that Germany is fighting alone with 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 only recently pushing a new pipeline link between the Iberian Peninsula and northern Europe.
Most recently, the French government was irked by 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 won a rule-breaking third term. Germany and China are also planning their own show when it comes to planned government consultations in January.
The thinking in the Elysée Palace is that it would have been better if Macron and Scholz had visited China together – and preferably a little later, rather than immediately after the Chinese Communist Party congress where Xi secured another term. According to one French official, a visit shortly after the congress would “legitimize” Xi’s third term and be “too politically expensive”.
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 also invited former Chancellor Angela Merkel and former European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker to Paris for to show European unity.
Macron refrained from directly criticizing the controversial Hamburg port deal with China’s Cosco, which Scholz had been pushing ahead of his visit to Beijing. But the French president last week questioned the wisdom of allowing China to invest in “basic infrastructure” and warned that Europe had been “naive” to Chinese purchases in the past “because we thought Europe was an open supermarket”.
Jean-Louis Thieriot, 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 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 the chagrin of France.
“The situation is unprecedented,” Thierio said. “Tensions are now worsening, and rapidly. In the last few months, Germany has decided to stop work on [Franco-German] Tiger helicopter, dropped joint naval patrols… And the air shield signature is a death blow [to the defense relationship],” he said.
Germany’s massive investment through a €100 billion military modernization fund, as well as Scholz’s commitment to NATO’s goal of allocating 2 percent of GDP to defense spending, is likely to push the annual defense budget to over €80 billion and means that Berlin will be on course to exceed France’s €44 billion defense budget.
Last week’s suspension of a joint Franco-German cabinet meeting was far from 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 former French President Charles de Gaulle’s famous speech in the palatial southwestern German city. But despite the highly symbolic nature of that ceremony, the leaders’ meeting never took place, with officials offering conflicting explanations for why, from appointment conflicts to alleged disagreements over who should shoulder the costs.
At the end of last month, Paris felt neglected by Berlin when Scholz did not find time to speak with French Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne: a meeting between the two leaders in Berlin was canceled because the chancellor tested positive for the coronavirus. But several French officials told POLITICO that a subsequent video conference was also canceled, allegedly because the Germans told Born’s office that Scholz was feeling too ill.
Paris was even more surprised — and annoyed — when Scholz appeared the same day via video at a news conference, not looking so ill, but instead confidently announcing his €200 billion energy aid package. The French say they were not even informed in advance. A German spokesman declined to comment.
Yannick Bury, a center-right opposition lawmaker in Germany who focuses on Franco-German relations, said Scholz should begin to repair ties with Macron. “It is 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.”