German Chancellor Olaf Scholz is running out of time to shape a common Franco-German heritage with French President Emmanuel Macron, with concerns growing that his distanced approach to Paris will lead to an era of stagnation in the relationship.
Successive Franco-German president-chancellor duos have succeeded on several occasions in advancing relations between the two countries thanks to joint projects in terms of brands: ffrom the Elysée Treaty of Adenauer and De Gaulle to the Next Generation EU fund of Merkel and Macron.
Yet midway through Scholz’s term, it seems increasingly likely that his term will be remembered as a Franco-German interregnum as – on both sides of the Rhine – doubts grow over whether relations with France are a priority for the Chancellor.
“There were high hopes on the French side that Olaf Scholz would devote more attention to European projects, which were frustrated,” said Henning Vöpel, European politics expert and CEO of the think tank Center for European Politics (CEP ) in Berlin. told EURACTIV. It is unlikely that Scholz will be able to develop sufficient proximity with his French counterpart during the remainder of his term, he added.
Finding a common project was undoubtedly not an easy task.
A succession of internal crises even thwarted symbolic gestures. French protests against police brutality forced Macron to cancel the first official visit by a French president to Germany in 23 years.
It was only last week, during a dinner in Paris attended by Macron and German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, that the two sides agreed on a replacement date in the first half of the next year – most likely on Europe Day (May 9), according to our information obtained by EURACTIV.
Meanwhile, on the European stage, the two governments constantly find themselves in opposing positions in key policy debates such as the status of nuclear energy, EU budgetary rules and European air defense.
However, political tensions did not stop previous Franco-German governments from taking new steps, Yann Wenert, a political scientist at the Jacques Delors Center, a think tank, told EURACTIV, referring to how Jacques Chirac and Gerhard Schröder overcame deep disagreements to adopt a common position. against the war in Iraq.
“A distinctive and unifying moment cannot be created artificially and Scholz and Macron have not yet had theirs,” Wernet said.
Francophilia in retreat
While policymakers in Paris and Berlin stress that relations between the two countries are better than advertised, concerns persist that the German chancellor may not be able or interested enough to design a new flagship project.
He It was noted on both sides that the German government was less Francophile than previous ones, continuing a trend predating Scholz.
“I think both Scholz and Merkel are less Francophile than Kohl.” Charles Sitzenstuhl, vice-president of the European Affairs Committee and spokesperson for Macron’s Renaissance party in the National Assembly, told EURACTIV.
However, with the departure of Angela Merkel’s government, the exodus of established Franco-German skills has increased further.
Sitzenstuhl points to the departure of Wolfgang Schäuble and Peter Altmaier, former Ministers of Finance and Business and originally from the Franco-German border.
They “were greatly missed,” he said, adding that “(they) understood deeply… how French politicians think and vice versa – people like that are hard to find these days.”
“Scholz is not Merkel”
The negative effect of Scholz’s disconnected mentality is amplified by broader communication issues.
The chancellor’s failure to coordinate key measures repeatedly caused diplomatic divisions with Paris, for example when Berlin surprised the French government by hastily announcing a plan to cut the national energy bill instead of coordinating measures with European partners.
“Scholz… doesn’t communicate much, but that’s what you always have to do with the French,” Vöpel said.
The chancellor therefore remains impenetrable for his French colleagues – Sitzenstuhl describes him as “mysterious” – a problematic basis for joint projects.
He also contrasts unfavorably with his predecessor in Germany, whose talent for forging political collaborations is even recognized by political opponents.
“Angela Merkel was a savvy politician who constantly spoke with her European partners and made them feel valued. It was very difficult for them to say ‘no’ to him,” Anton Hofreiter, Green chairman of the German parliament’s European Affairs Committee, told EURACTIV.
“Scholz is not Angela Merkel” is therefore an expression often heard among the French, which implies doubts about Scholz’s ability to assume her responsibilities in terms of good neighborly collaboration.
Some Franco-German political circles remain hopeful about the legacy of the Macron-Scholz era.
A new round of EU enlargement, particularly in the Western Balkans, appears to be a promising topic, with Hofreiter highlighting the good relations between EU ministers Anna Lührmann and Laurence Boone, who chairs a working group on the subject.
This would likely result in a partial removal of the unanimity requirement for EU foreign policy, as it has been presented as a precondition by both countries. Luhrmann told EURACTIV that reforms to voting rules would be possible this year.
Whatever the Franco-German heritage of Macron and Scholz, they lack time to work on its materialization.
“In 2025 there will be elections in Germany. So we have a year and a half to make concrete decisions for Europe,” Sitzenstuhl said.
(Additional reporting by Davide Basso)
(Edited by Oliver Noyan/Nathalie Weatherald)