24 Nov 2022 11:05 am
By Pierre Levy
The announcement hit like a bomb: The annual joint meeting of the German and French governments, scheduled for October 26, was “postponed” at the last minute. While it is not the first time that relations between Paris and Berlin have faltered, it is rare that the disputes have surfaced in such a spectacular way, especially given the postponement on the eve of the European Council, due to take place on 20th and 21st April. October took place, was announced.
The French President received the German Chancellor on the day of the canceled meeting to ease the shock. However, no differences of opinion could be resolved on this occasion. The Élysée Palace spoke of “important issues relating to sovereignty issues” and the Chancellery acknowledged that there are “a whole range of issues on which we have not yet reached a common position”.
These tensions, which have existed for months, erupted and amplified against the background of growing contradictions in the European Union. They currently affect two key areas.
The first point of contention is the defense. When Russian tanks moved into Ukraine in February of this year, the Chancellor spoke of a “turning point”. Decades of economic cooperation with Russia should be ended according to the Western consensus, which had been rapidly forming under US leadership. Olaf Scholz also announced a significant increase in his army and multi-year funding of 100 billion euros for this purpose.
At first, people in the Élysée Palace were delighted. This, it was thought, would certainly give a boost to the two countries’ joint armaments programs, particularly the fighter of the future and its hyper-sophisticated appendages and the next generation of main battle tanks.
However, the Chancellor quickly dampened French hopes when it became clear that his priority was short-term purchases of US materiel and arms. And as if that wasn’t enough, Berlin confirmed its participation in the missile defense shield project, which involves 14 NATO countries – but not France, which has its own program.
The other area is energy, the very area where the 27 find it difficult to agree. The main focus of the tug-of-war is capping the price of imported gas. France is one of the 15 Member States committed to this. Germany is against it, together with some other countries like the Netherlands, Austria or Hungary.
Indeed, the two camps are at odds over how to deal with the spectacular rise in energy prices, particularly gas prices, in recent months. Household bills have skyrocketed in many countries and hundreds of thousands of small and medium-sized businesses are threatened with closure.
Above all, Berlin does not want to run the risk of a supply bottleneck that would result from an artificial upper price limit. Because this European cap would induce the suppliers (Norway, USA, Gulf States…) to sell elsewhere. Germany has the means to stock up at high prices and to massively subsidize its economy with a “protective shield” intended to protect households and companies. To this end, the Chancellor announced a plan worth 200 billion euros (over two years).
This sparked an outcry from many of his European partners, who accused him of selfishness. Even the European Commission pointed out the risk of distortion of competition between German companies, which are royally protected, and companies from smaller countries, which are unable to do the same.
Shortly before the opening of the European Council on October 20, Emmanuel Macron tried to pool this resistance in the hope of persuading the partner across the Rhine to give in: “It’s neither good for Europe nor for Germany if they isolate themselves “, the French President had declared hypocritically. Finally, the summit gave the commission the task of examining different scenarios for a cap. The contradiction within the 27 and between Berlin and Paris has by no means been resolved to this day.
Last conflict: Berlin has repeatedly pushed for the construction of the so-called MidCat gas pipeline, an old project through the Pyrenees to transport liquid gas that lands on the Spanish coast through France to northern Europe. Finally, Emmanuel Macron gave the chancellor the cold shoulder by burying the route and, along with his Spanish and Portuguese counterparts, announcing an underwater line between Barcelona and Marseille. “Green” hydrogen is supposed to circulate there. At this point in time, however, it is more of a political announcement fueling resentment between Paris and Berlin than a seriously thought-out and funded project.
The disputes are not limited to defense and energy. Old contradictions reappear. Thus, the two sides of the Rhine are at odds over future reform of eurozone governance. While rules limiting government debt and deficits have been temporarily suspended amid the pandemic crisis, Berlin, in line with so-called “frugal” countries (Netherlands, Austria and others), expects them to be reinstated, while Paris, supported by the southern countries, has repeatedly pleaded for more flexible conditions.
Another dispute resurfaces: in the 2000s, Germany had prioritized eastward enlargement through the rapid accession of Central and Eastern European countries, while France had argued in favor of “deepening” integration first. This contrast is being revived today with the Balkans, whose accession Berlin is reluctant to put off, while Paris is in no hurry and would rather see “multi-speed” architecture.
Germany, in particular, benefited economically from the accession of the Eastern European countries, whose industry had benefited primarily from the suppliers in the Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary due to the proximity and the good training of the workforce. In addition, it strengthened its power status by shifting the EU’s center of gravity eastwards. Completing this move to the south-east of the continent would lead to a “marginalization” of France in the west of the bloc – at least that is what some French politicians fear.
The paradox is that both Emmanuel Macron and Olaf Scholz claim they are in favor of a more integrated EU. This was the meaning of the “Sorbonne speech” that the former held in September 2017, a plea that Chancellor Angela Merkel ignored at the time.
Five years later, the new Social Democratic chancellor in Prague – it was August 29 of this year – called for a quasi-federal EU, as agreed by his three-party coalition. He also referred to the EU’s “rapid deployment capability” at the military level, and recalled the five-thousand-strong force envisaged in the “Strategic Compass” document formally adopted in March this year, which Berlin was supposed to lead.
Olaf Scholz may have adopted the concept of “European sovereignty” coined by his French counterpart, but when it comes to moving from concept to action, reality raises an objection, starting with this statement: political cultures and economic, Industrial and energy policy configurations are fundamentally different on both sides of the Rhine.
In addition, the time for federalist flights of fancy is over. Several countries in the East, notably Hungary and Poland, explicitly oppose this in the name of their national sovereignty. And in the West, political forces are emerging that claim national sovereignty. This was only recently the case in Sweden, Italy and France. While these forces have subscribed to the “European idea,” the growing weight of their constituency is an obstacle to integration plans, and they are contributing to the clashes between political leaders.
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