France and Germany going through a rough patch

France's President Emmanuel Macron and Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel at a press conference after the European Council meeting in Brussels, 23 March 2018. [EPA-EFE/OLIVIER HOSLET]

Neither France nor Germany is ready to acknowledge a cooling down in their relationship. But the German government’s complete lack of flexibility is ruffling the feathers of the French side. reports.

“Are there not too many Germans at the head of the institutions, with three general secretaries (Commission, Parliament, European Court of Auditors) and the heads of the political groups at the European Parliament?”

This was the straightforward question asked by Libération at the joint French and German conference at the European Council on 23 March.

“I will let the Chancellor answer your glowing tribute to her efficiency and organisation,” replied French President Emmanuel Macron.

Macron certainly meant it as a joke but there was nonetheless more than a hint of truth to the implied criticism.The atmosphere at the joint press conference bringing together the French and German leaders – a novelty since Macron took over the Elysée – was not exactly highly friendly.

“It’s a pity, these joint conferences don’t do any good for the head of state’s image,” said some in the French government. In the President’s office, however, there seems to be no intention of abandoning these conferences.

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Germany First

Tensions between the two countries seem to have increased in recent weeks on a number of subjects. “We are at a low point,” one diplomat said.

After patiently waiting several months for Germany to put together a coalition and a government, reaching out to propose a new Elysée treaty and joint cabinet meetings, France is entitled to feel disappointed by the first steps taken by the German government which don’t seem to take France seriously.

On 18 March, before Cecilia Malström, the EU trade commissioner, left for Washington to try to ward off a nascent trade war on steel with the US, the German Economic Affairs Minister Peter Altmaier was already in the US to defend German interests.

This was seen as a direct insult for both the European Commission and France, the visit of the German minister seeming to suggest that Germany continues to behave as the undisputed leader.

“That went down very badly on the French side,” said Sébastien Maillard, head of the Jacques Delors Institute. “France has shown itself to be very pro-German, and has really invested in its relationship with Germany and is disappointed that it has received nothing in return.”

Asked by, the German MEP Reimer Böge, vice-president of the European Parliament, spoke in defence of his minister. “Peter Altmeier could not just sit there and twiddle his thumbs. He is a committed advocate of European integration. If there was a similar degree of commitment among other European governments, we could make a lot more progress,” he said.

But this is not an isolated case. On the potential budget for the eurozone, a project which France had high hopes for, it is currently playing a waiting game. The timetable has been extended, as the priority is now to move forward on the banking union until the end of the first half, but not on the budgetary issue.

Questioned on the subject, Angela Merkel consistently talks about safeguarding competition, the inference being protecting Germany from its international rivals. The unwillingness to see things from a European perspective ends any further debate on the issue.

Christine Lagarde, who was in Berlin at the end of March, managed to strike a fatal blow to the project of the European budget under the pretense of defending it. He statement that it should total 100€ billion, implying an annual contribution of 10€ billion for Germany, immediately provoked a general outcry in Germany.

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Eurozone budget, minimum price for CO2: Germany not yielding an inch

Tensions between France and Germany on the subject is even greater now that Germany has found an ally in the Italian Finance Minister Pier Carlo Padoan. The two countries issued a joint statement on the subject.  No joint statement with France has been forthcoming, however.

“Of course we are waiting for a Franco-German initiative of the same kind. But this German-Italian initiative shows how important it is to find allies to carry out projects to completion,” said Reimer Böge.

In addition, Macron’s idea on carbon pricing has left Germany indifferent. The French President tried to establish a coalition of countries which would introduce a minimum price for CO2 in the carbon emissions market of around 30€ per tonne.

Germany did not greet this proposal with enthusiasm either, as it considers this just a way of enabling EDF to fill its empty coffers. A higher carbon price would make electricity more expensive, to the benefit of low-carbon electricity generators such as the nuclear industry. It would certainly not help some German electricity generators that are still highly dependent on coal.

Relations between the two EU leaders should, however, remain good on more political issues such as immigration, digital taxation and standing up for the rule of law. “France is more forthcoming than Germany on these subjects, but Germany shares France’s sense of urgency, which should make it possible to get things done, “ said Maillard.

On the eurozone or on European defence in the short term, however, France will just have to learn to live with its disappointment.

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