French-German relationship under strain as EU faces harsh tests

Signs are growing that the crucial partnership between Germany and France is stumbling, experts say, just as Russia's invasion of Ukraine and soaring energy costs place extreme stress on the EU.

French-German relationship under strain as EU faces harsh tests
French President Emmanuel Macron meets Germany's Chancellor Olaf Scholz in Brussels on October 20, 2022. Photo by Ludovic MARIN / AFP

Amid disagreements over energy, foreign policy, arms procurement and more, a joint cabinet meeting has been pushed back to January, while a parliamentary gathering of French, German and Polish MPs was cancelled at the weekend.

There have always been “difficult moments” in the relationship, said France’s former ambassador to China, Britain and Russia, Sylvie Bermann.

“But we’re clearly in a period of crisis, and the Franco-German relationship seems more strained than ever,” she said.

It did not help that the Ukraine war erupted when German Chancellor Olaf Scholz had barely taken office, with insiders saying French President Emmanuel Macron’s relationship with him is nothing like as warm as with former chancellor Angela Merkel, with whom he exchanged text messages regularly.

Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron had a warm relationship during her time as chancellor. Photo by John MACDOUGALL / AFP

Scholz and Macron are set to meet one-on-one in Paris on Wednesday following last week’s gathering of European leaders.

“There’s a necessary learning process” as Germany’s three-party governing coalition finds its feet, said Alexandre Robinet-Borgomano, a German politics expert at French think-tank Institut Montaigne.

“In future, the German government will have to build compromises with more dialogue, more connection with its European partners,” he added.

The Berlin-Paris axis has been the foundation of EU compromise for decades, and the bloc’s two biggest and wealthiest countries are still more critical since Britain’s departure.

Europe’s economic heavyweight Germany has sowed discord with plans for a national €200-billion energy subsidy, rather than an EU-wide agreement to cap prices.

“I don’t think it’s good for Germany or for Europe if it isolates itself,” Macron said last week of the plans, which smaller countries fear could drive up prices for them.

Ironically, the complaints from France and elsewhere come as Germany appears to be caving to long-standing demands, analyst Robinet-Borgomano said.

France has spent 10 years “firstly rebuking (Germany) for not spending enough on defence, for not having a strategic or geopolitical vision, and second rebuking it for staying stuck in austerity policy and spending no money”, he pointed out.

That’s “exactly what we’re complaining about today”, Robinet-Borgomano added.

Berlin “is investing more to stimulate growth and domestic demand, it’s taking on a leadership role and is building European defence” with massive new spending following Russia’s assault on Ukraine.

The energy subsidy dust-up was brushed under the carpet with an agreement for an energy price “roadmap” at last week’s EU summit.

France has also snubbed Germany’s pleas to build a new overland gas pipeline – known as MidCat – from import terminals in Spain and Portugal to European networks.

Instead, Macron last week announced an undersea pipeline from Barcelona to Marseille, with no timetable for completion or details of its funding.

Meanwhile in defence – a field where France and Germany have striven to display unity – differences have also been forced to the surface.

Paris has stayed out of a Germany-led plan for an anti-missile shield stretching across much of Europe, which has so far brought 14 countries including Britain, Belgium and the Netherlands on board.

One Macron adviser said France fears a “restart of the arms race in Europe”, and will stick to its own air defence systems.

Analyst Robinet-Borgomano suggested that Paris was in fact annoyed that the shield would use US- and Israeli-made equipment rather than a French-Italian alternative.

France “ought to have pushed for interoperability between systems to ensure European sovereignty, we can see that it’s about competing for leadership in European defence”, he said.

A still thornier issue is a plan to develop a German-French-Spanish next-generation fighter jet known as the Future Combat Air System (FCAS).

Contracts for the next phase of development on the plane, supposed to replace existing fleets of French Rafales and German and Spanish Eurofighters by 2040, have not yet been signed.

“There’s political agreement, but it’s jammed at the level of the companies,” one senior French official said.

French manufacturer Dassault “is afraid of losing its market position” if forced to work with competitor Airbus, they added.

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British PM promises ‘new impetus’ to French ties

Britain's Prime Minister Keir Starmer promised on Thursday to bring a "new impetus" to ties with France and to work with Paris to oppose Russia's invasion of Ukraine and end migrant-trafficking across the Channel.

British PM promises 'new impetus' to French ties

Starmer was to meet France’s President Emmanuel Macron later in the day for one-to-one talks on the sidelines of the European Political Community summit in Blenheim Palace, near Oxford.

In a piece published in French newspaper Le Monde to mark the meeting, the new British premier acknowledged Britain is no longer one of France’s EU partners, since the previous government left the union.

But, Starmer wrote, 120 years after the Entente Cordiale agreements resolving colonial disputes between Paris and London, “we are still bound by many things”, citing the G7 group, UN Security Council and NATO.

And he recalled the key role Britain and France have played as European military and economic powers in resisting Russia.

“I never thought, in my lifetime, that I would hear the rumble of war echoing across Europe. I never thought a leader would choose such an absurd and destructive path,” Starmer wrote.

“And yet, Russian President Vladimir Putin made this choice. Our determination to face it must never waver.”

Freshly elected at the head of a Labour Party government with a large House of Commons majority, Starmer also addressed the issue of cross-Channel migration, which has hurt ties in the recent past.

As prime minister, Starmer has already abandoned his predecessor’s efforts to expel asylum-seekers arriving in Britain by boat to Rwanda, but is still seeking a way to slow arrivals from France.

“A veritable criminal empire is today at work throughout Europe. It profits from human misery and despair, sending countless innocent people to their deaths in the waters of the English Channel,” he said.

“For me, this problem is no longer a challenge, it is a crisis. We will therefore work with France and with all our European partners to resolve it,” he wrote, vowing that Britain would respect international law.

The former senior lawyer stressed that Britain would continue to respect the European Convention on Human Rights, which the previous government had considered quitting.