The deepening rift between France and Germany was revealed by the recent announcement that a Franco-German ministerial meeting is being pushed back to next January. The alliance between Germany and France is often described as “the engine” of the European Union and analysts say the current spat is undermining the EU’s capacity to act.
The Elysee Palace was quick to put the move down to scheduling difficulties for several ministers and a lack of time to prepare the meeting. “The delay does in no way give an indication of the current state of the Franco-German relationship,” a spokeswoman told press last week, adding that it was indeed just a delay and not a cancellation.
But her statement — and then the hastily scheduled visit by German Chancellor Olaf Scholz to Paris this Wednesday — failed to convince analysts.
“The Franco-German ministerial meeting generally does not yield many concrete results apart from nonessential decisions, such as setting up common language courses, and is an occasion to repeat the two countries’ commitment to close cooperation,” Stefan Seidendorf, deputy director of the Ludwigsburg-based think tank, the German-Franco Institute, or DFI, said.
“But these meetings and Franco-German cooperation are vital for the functioning of the EU — and never since the first one in 1963 has a meeting been cancelled,” he told DW.
Seidendorf explained that what works for the US in foreign policy doesn’t work in Europe. The US presumes it can act alone, as it is big enough for other countries to see its actions as an example to follow.
“But no European country is large enough to guarantee political stability by itself and we need a fundamental consensus between France and Germany, the bloc’s two largest economies, which also represent the two most divergent standpoints. Other member states align with that compromise,” Seidendorf pointed out.
Currently though, both Germany and France seem to prefer forging their own independent paths.
Berlin recently voted through a €200 billion ($197 billion) emergency package to aid against rising gas and electricity prices at home, without informing France. That would have been common courtesy, especially as such an amount is likely to distort the market.
What’s more, at a recent NATO meeting, Germany signed a deal 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.
This is even though France is already developing the so-called Mamba air missile defense shield together with Italy.
Since the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February this year, military defense has gained new importance.
Meanwhile at the EU’s Summit of the Heads of State and Government last week, France’s President Emmanuel Macron announced a deal with Spain and Portugal to build a new hydrogen and gas pipeline between Barcelona and Marseille. That project buries the so-called Midcat pipeline that would have linked Spain with France through the Pyrenees. Berlin preferred this pipeline, likley in the hope that Germany would eventually benefit from Iberian gas too.
The French President also had a direct dig at his supposed ally. “It’s neither good for Germany nor for Europe when Germany isolates itself,” he said.
“Both sides are irritated with each other,” Seidendorf commented.
“Germany seems to think it can come to multilateral agreements with other small countries and circumvent France. And France is still waiting for Germany to accept Macron’s pledge for deeper European integration that he made during his speech at Sorbonne University in 2017,” the political scientist added. At the time the French President pleaded for a whole-of-eurozone budget and stronger military and tax cooperation, among other things.
But Sophie Pornschlegel, a senior policy analyst at Brussels-based think tank, the European Policy Centre, doesn’t find the show 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.
“If we’re lucky, and it doesn’t get 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 through, for example, an EU solidarity fund,” she argued.
Otherwise energy could become unaffordable, Pornschlegel added, and lead to an economic crisis and more unemployment.
“The current rift in Europe plays into [Russian leader] Vladimir Putin’s hands and hamstrings the EU’s capacity to act,” she stressed.
France and Germany have areas where they traditionally disagree, such as on energy. For instance, France is in favor of nuclear energy whereas Germany is opposed to it.
But, as Jacques-Pierre Gougeon, an expert on Germany at Paris-based think tank, the Institute for International and Strategic Relations, pointed out, the current crisis seems deeper than previous disagreements.
“The spat is particularly grave,” Gougeon told DW, “as some smaller EU member states, such as Poland and the Baltic states, are questioning Franco-German leadership.”