EU leaders yearn for days when Berlin was more 'Europe-minded'

Frankly Speaking

Picture of Giles Merritt
Giles Merritt

Founder of Friends of Europe

Giles Merritt recalls the time when the Berlin-Paris ‘locomotive’ drove the EU forward, and bridged many of its internal divisions.

Franco-German relations are central to the European Union’s future, yet they are the focus of growing concern. When Germany’s ‘traffic lights’ coalition government took office in December 2021, many in the EU heaved a sigh of relief that Angela Merkel’s stolidly conservative reign was over. That has since become a groan of despair because of divisive differences over support for Ukraine.

The broadly-based federal government led by social democrat Olaf Scholz was widely welcomed. He had been Merkel’s ‘safe pair of hands’ finance minister, and flanked by the business-friendly FDP liberals and by the Green Party, Scholz’s red-yellow-green coalition seemed the desirable new face of Germany. Within weeks of her departure, revisionists were complaining that Merkel hadn’t been unflappable so much as indecisive.

But now political leaders and policymakers in other parts of Europe are ruefully repeating the old adage: “Be careful what you wish for.” Far from breathing new life into the EU, Chancellor Scholz and his colleagues are accused of sucking out its oxygen. His lengthy hesitation over the sending of German-made Leopard tanks to Ukraine has focussed attention on other areas where his government is accused of lacking leadership on EU matters.

There is no longer an axis strong enough to rally Europe around a common position

Germany’s moves to counter its longstanding over-reliance on Russian gas with a €200 billion consumer support package have been seen as trashing the EU’s solidarity. Berlin’s body language is said to signal a greater preoccupation with domestic priorities rather than Europe’s needs. The most visible casualty has been the Berlin-Paris axis.

Forty years ago, the spirit of Franco-German reconciliation was captured by the famous photograph of France’s president François Mitterrand and German chancellor Helmut Kohl standing hand in hand in the military cemetery at Verdun. Their partnership opened the way to the EU’s single market, the launch of the euro and the ‘Big Bang’ enlargement bringing in twelve more countries. That unity of purpose is gone, and rightly or wrongly much of the blame is placed on Berlin.

Even in the partnership’s heyday Germany and France weren’t always in lockstep. They disagreed on many issues, but their cooperation was such that they found compromise solutions that at the same time satisfied the requirements of smaller EU member states. This broad consensus was the cement that enabled the EU’s ‘ever-closer union’.

The two leaders’ smiles seemed chiefly for the cameras when Olaf Scholz visited Emmanuel Macron in Paris to mark January’s sixtieth anniversary of the Elysée Treaty of Franco-German ‘friendship’. Many observers concluded that there is no longer an axis strong enough to rally Europe around a common position.

There are signs the Ukraine conflict is starting to bring Paris and Berlin closer again

Divisions over security and foreign policy engulfed Scholz as soon as he set foot in the Berlin chancellery. The protectionist US post-Covid and anti-inflation measures introduced by President Joe Biden have provoked different reactions within the EU, and may yet trigger a transatlantic trade war. Divergent views in Europe on how to deal with China are also worrying, but are dwarfed by mounting tensions over Ukraine, and thus Russia.

The most problematic area of all for Chancellor Scholz is defence. His SPD party’s traditionally pacifist ideals are at odds with other European nations’ support for Ukraine’s war effort, and the result has been a substantial loss of German credibility and authority. Berlin’s difficulties are likely to grow as the next controversy within NATO and the EU is over supplying Ukraine with combat aircraft.

The aircraft in question would be the ageing Lockheed-Martin multi-purpose F-16s being phased out by several NATO countries and replaced with F-35s. Poland and the Netherlands have signalled their willingness to send the US-built aircraft. President Biden has ruled out sending jets as that might escalate the war, while France’s response has been ambiguous.

EU governments will need time to digest Ukraine’s latest requests. President Volodymyr Zelensky visited Brussels last week to reinforce his call for military hardware – especially the F-16s – and accelerated fast-track procedures for bringing his country into the Union. Neither will be easy. On the plus side, there are signs the Ukraine conflict is starting to bring Paris and Berlin closer again. Chancellor Scholz’s decision to join President Macron in preparatory talks with Zelensky on the eve of his Brussels trip seemed a significant step towards restoring the partnership that is so crucial to Europe’s unity of purpose.

The views expressed in this Frankly Speaking op-ed reflect those of the author and not of Friends of Europe.

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