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Has the Franco-German tandem entered an interregnum under Scholz?

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz is running out of time to shape a joint Franco-German legacy with French President Emmanuel Macron

By: EBR - Posted: Tuesday, September 12, 2023

Successive Franco-German president-chancellor duos have repeatedly managed to move the relationship between the two countries forward with joint trademark projects: from the Elysee Treaty of Adenauer and De Gaulle to Merkel and Macron’s Next Generation EU fund.
Successive Franco-German president-chancellor duos have repeatedly managed to move the relationship between the two countries forward with joint trademark projects: from the Elysee Treaty of Adenauer and De Gaulle to Merkel and Macron’s Next Generation EU fund.

by Nick Alipour

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz is running out of time to shape a joint Franco-German legacy with French President Emmanuel Macron, with worries growing that his distanced approach to Paris will yield an era of stagnation in the relationship.

Successive Franco-German president-chancellor duos have repeatedly managed to move the relationship between the two countries forward with joint trademark projects: from the Elysee Treaty of Adenauer and De Gaulle to Merkel and Macron’s Next Generation EU fund.

Yet halfway through Scholz’s term, it is looking increasingly likely that his tenure will be remembered as a Franco-German interregnum as – on both sides of the Rhine – doubts grow as to whether the relationship with France is a priority for the chancellor.

“There had been high hopes on the French side that Olaf Scholz would dedicate more attention towards European projects, which have been frustrated,” Henning Vopel, a European politics expert and CEO of the Centre for European Politics think tank (CEP) in Berlin, told EURACTIV. It is unlikely that Scholz would be able to develop sufficient closeness with his French counterpart over the rest of his term, he added.

Finding a joint project has arguably not been an easy task.

A succession of domestic crises has thwarted even symbolic gestures. French protests against police brutality forced Macron to cancel the first official visit of a French president to Germany in 23 years.

Only last week, at a dinner in Paris attended by Macron and Germany’s President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, did both sides agree on a replacement date in the first half of next year – most likely on Europe Day (9 May), EURACTIV understands.

Meanwhile, on the European stage, the two governments consistently find themselves in opposite corners in key policy debates such as the status of nuclear energy, EU fiscal rules and European air defence.

However, policy tensions did not keep previous Franco-German governments from reaching new milestones, Yann Wernert, political scientist at the Jacques Delors Centre, a think tank, told EURACTIV, referencing how Jacques Chirac and Gerhard Schroder overcame deep disagreements to take a joint stance against the Iraq War.

“A distinctive, unifying moment cannot be created artificially and Scholz and Macron haven’t had theirs yet,” Wernert said.

Francophilia on the backfoot

While policymakers in Paris and Berlin stress that the relationship between both countries is better than reported, concerns persist that the German chancellor might be neither able nor interested enough to engineer a new flagship project.

It has been noted on both sides that the German government is less francophile than previous ones, continuing a trend that predates Scholz.

“I think both Scholz and Merkel are less francophile than Kohl,” Charles Sitzenstuhl, deputy chair of the European affairs committee and spokesperson of Macron’s Renaissance party at the Assemblee National, told EURACTIV.

However, with the departure of Angela Merkel’s government, the outflow of established Franco-German competence has increased further.

Sitzenstuhl points to the exit of Wolfgang Schauble and Peter Altmaier, former finance and business ministers and natives of the Franco-German border.

They “were missed dearly”, he said, adding that “[they] deeply understood … how French politicians think and vice versa – people like that are hard to find nowadays”.

“Scholz is not Merkel”

The negative effect of Scholz’s disconnected mentality is amplified by wider communication issues.

The chancellor’s failure to coordinate key moves has repeatedly caused diplomatic rifts with Paris, for example, when Berlin surprised the French government with the snap announcement of a national energy bill relief package instead of coordinating measures with European partners.

“Scholz […] doesn’t communicate a lot, but that’s what you always need to do with the French,” Vopel said.

The chancellor remains accordingly inscrutable to his French colleagues – Sitzenstuhl describes him as “mysterious” – a problematic basis for joint projects.

It also stands in unfavourable contrast to his predecessor in Germany, whose talent for forging political collaborations is even acknowledged by political opponents.

“Angela Merkel was an adept politician who constantly spoke to European partners and made them feel valued. It was very hard for them to say ‘No’ to her,” Anton Hofreiter, the Green chair of the German parliament’s European affairs committee, told EURACTIV.

“Scholz is not Angela Merkel” is thus a phrase often heard among the French, implying doubts if Scholz can fill her big shoes regarding successful neighbourly collaboration.

Time is running out

Some Franco-German political circles remain hopeful about the legacy of the Macron-Scholz era.

Another round of EU enlargement, particularly regarding the Western Balkans, appears to be a promising subject, with Hofreiter pointing to the good relationship between the European ministers Anna Luhrmann and Laurence Boone who are chairing a working group on the matter.

A partial abolishment of the unanimity requirement for the EU’s foreign policy would likely come with it, as it has been framed as a precondition by both countries. Luhrmann told EURACTIV that voting rule reforms would be possible this year.

Whatever Macron’s and Scholz’s Franco-German legacy will be, they are running out of time to work on its materialisation.

“In 2025 there will be elections in Germany. So we have one and a half years to make concrete decisions for Europe,” said Sitzenstuhl.

*first published in: Euractiv.com

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