Franco-German tensions “paralyze the EU’s capacity for action” – DW – 25/10/2022

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The recent announcement of the postponement of a Franco-German ministerial meeting to next January seems to have revealed a growing gap between the two countries. The alliance between Germany and France is often described as “the engine” of the European Union and analysts say the current row is undermining the EU’s ability to act.

The Elysée was quick to attribute this decision to the programming difficulties of several ministers and the lack of time to prepare for the meeting. “This postponement in no way gives an indication of the current state of the Franco-German relationship,” a spokeswoman told reporters last week, adding that it was indeed a postponement and not of a cancellation.

But his statement – ​​and then the hasty visit of German Chancellor Olaf Scholz to Paris on Wednesday – did not convince analysts.

Vital cooperation

“The Franco-German ministerial meeting does not usually produce many concrete results apart from non-essential decisions, such as the establishment of common language courses, and is an opportunity to reiterate the two countries’ commitment to close cooperation. “Stefan Seidendorf, deputy director of the Ludwigsburg-based think tank, the Franco-German Institute, or DFI, said.

European Union flags fly outside the headquarters of the European Commission in Brussels, Belgium.
The French president has presented bold plans for EU integration, while Germany tends to want to go slowerImage: Yves Herman/REUTERS

“But these meetings and Franco-German cooperation are vital to the functioning of the EU – and never since the first in 1963 has a meeting been cancelled,” he told DW.

Seidendorf explained that what works for the United States in foreign policy does not work in Europe. The United States assumes that it can act on its own, because it is big enough that other countries see its actions as an example to follow.

“But no European country is big enough to guarantee political stability on its own and we need a fundamental consensus between France and Germany, the two largest economies in the bloc, which also represent the two points of most diverging views. Other member states align themselves with this compromise”, Seidendorf underlined.

France and Germany, both go it alone

Currently, however, Germany and France seem to prefer to forge their own independent paths.

Berlin recently passed a 200 billion euro ($197 billion) emergency plan to tackle rising gas and electricity prices in the country, without informing France. It would have been courtesy, especially since such an amount is likely to distort the market.

Additionally, at a recent NATO meeting, Germany signed an agreement with 14 other NATO countries and Finland on a new air defense system called the European Sky Shield Initiative, or ESSI. The initiative aims to create a joint air defense program on the continent. But France was not included.

And this, even if France is already developing the so-called Mamba missile defense shield with Italy.

NASAMS anti-aircraft missile systems are placed by the Dutch Defense.
Air defense systems tested in the Netherlands, one of the signatory countries of the ESSIImage: Robin Van Lonkhuijsen/ANP/dpa/picture alliance

Since the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February this year, military defense has acquired new importance.

Meanwhile, at the summit of EU heads of state and government last week, French President Emmanuel Macron announced an agreement with Spain and Portugal to build a new gas and hydrogen pipeline. between Barcelona and Marseilles. This project buries the so-called Midcat pipeline that would have connected Spain to France through the Pyrenees. Berlin preferred this gas pipeline, probably in the hope that Germany would also benefit from Iberian gas.

The French president also had a direct dig at his supposed ally. “It is neither good for Germany nor for Europe that Germany isolates itself,” he said.

No time to sulk

“Both sides are irritated with each other,” Seidendorf commented.

“Germany seems to think that it can make multilateral agreements with other small countries and bypass France. And France is still waiting for Germany to accept Macron’s promise to deepen the European integration he has made during his speech at the Sorbonne University in 2017,” said the political scientist. added. At the time, the French president pleaded for a budget for the whole of the euro zone and reinforced military and fiscal cooperation, among other things.

But Sophie Pornschlegel, senior policy analyst at the Brussels-based think tank the European Policy Centre, doesn’t find the spectacle of bilateral sulking particularly amusing. “We don’t have time for this – there’s a war in Europe and we’re facing an energy crisis,” she told DW.

Brussels analyst Sophie Pornschlegel
Brussels analyst Sophie Pornschlegel says now is not the time to sulkImage: Frederike van der Straeten (Berlin 2021)

“If we’re lucky and it’s not too cold in the coming months, we’ll get through this winter. But we’ll need a long-term solution to deal with rising energy prices. , for example in EU solidarity funds”, she argued.

Otherwise, energy could become unaffordable, Pornschlegel added, and lead to an economic crisis and more unemployment.

“The current divide in Europe plays [Russian leader] Vladimir Putin’s hands are hampering the EU’s ability to act,” she said.

A much deeper disagreement?

France and Germany have areas where they traditionally disagree, such as energy. For example, France is in favor of nuclear power while Germany is against it.

But, as Jacques-Pierre Gougeon, an expert on Germany at the Paris-based think tank the Institute of International and Strategic Relations, has pointed out, the current crisis seems deeper than previous disagreements.

“The spat is particularly serious,” Gougeon told DW, “because some smaller EU member states, like Poland and the Baltic states, are questioning Franco-German leadership.”

French President (right) and Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez (left)
Best friends? French President (right) and Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez have agreed on a new gas pipeline Image: Bertrand Guay/AP/picture alliance

Ronja Kempin, senior fellow at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin, also thinks the current argument reflects a deeper and more fundamental disagreement.

“Macron has long pushed for the EU to work with smaller, issue-specific working groups and opposes an enlargement of the EU before it is reformed. He sees the EU as a way to expand the power of France,” she told DW.

“Germany, on the other hand, sees EU enlargement as a way to transform and bring peace to countries,” she added.

look on the bright side

DFI’s Seidendorf still sees a silver lining.

“German and French heads of state have often had to go through a learning curve to understand that the EU cannot function without the Franco-German couple.”

When they were in power, former German leader Ludwig Erhard, who was in power in the 1960s, and former French leader Nicolas Sarkozy, who served as president between 2007 and 2012, must have learned that too, Seidendorf pointed out.

It is “incredibly difficult” to reach a compromise with an ally who disagrees with you in certain key areas, he conceded. “But eventually they all come.”

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