A “Watershed” Moment for Franco-German Relations

    A magic dwells in each beginning”, but can this sentiment be applied to the transition of government in Germany? The assumption of office by the centre-left German Chancellor Scholz marked a noticeable departure from the era of Merkel. Scholz charted a distinct course in foreign and domestic policy early in his tenure. However, the most striking indication of a shift lies in these two consecutive leaders’ differing attributes and global leadership potential.

    Merkel had earned international respect as a guardian of the liberal international order and a charismatic stateswoman. In contrast, Scholz has yet to prove himself adept at forging personal relations with other heads of state, and his claim to global leadership remains unassertive. This transition also shed light on a fundamental shift in the priorities of the German government. Under Merkel’s leadership, hard security was never a primary focus, largely due to the historical weight of Germany’s security policy status quo. Merkel leaned towards dialogue rather than military means.

    This is not to say that security was absent from Merkel’s concerns – she attached great importance to the NATO alliance and championed the idea of a European Union military. Nevertheless, even then, differences in approach between Merkel and France’s President Macron ran deep. Merkel’s diplomatic pragmatism appeared mostly at odds with Macron’s more disruptive political style.

    The ‘historic pacifism‘ attributed to Germany seems to be at a crossroads, owing to the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine. This conflict has ushered in what Scholz aptly termed a “watershed”, an era reshaping Germany’s defence and security stance. Scholz announced his intention to increase military spending to 2% of its GDP from next year for the first time in decades. This move has added a fresh layer of complexity to the role of Germany in European politics, signalling that Scholz’s seemingly unassertive approach to global leadership role doesn’t necessarily translate to inward-looking isolationism.

    Merkel’s departure from the political stage has not necessarily played out in favour of Macron, who had long been vying for influence over Europe, often in opposition to Merkel’s dominant presence. While neither Scholz nor Macron is expected to replicate Merkel’s level of dominance, their differences run deeper than in the previous era. During Merkel’s tenure, she displayed a remarkable ability to bridge differences and foster consensus-building, even if not always achieving mutual agreement. This cooperative spirit was exemplified by the Franco-German brigade’s deployment in the Sahel region and their joint fighter jet project. Merkel and Macron were even aligned in asserting that Europe could no longer solely rely on the United States for protection.

    However, Macron must deal with the new leadership, challenged by the inability to reach common ground to advance “European” interests. In Macron’s eyes, Merkel’s so-called ‘slow pragmatism’ has now turned into ‘no pragmatism’. The tensions have escalated, especially regarding the US’ security-provider role in Europe. The German-led initiative to buy air defence systems raised the question of the ‘strategic autonomy’ Macron aims to establish for a unified and independent Europe against foreign states, even in the face of its long-standing ally, the United States.

    In this context, agendas matter, and so do policy-making perceptions. Unsurprisingly, the ‘idealist’ Macron faces disappointment as Germany shifts its priorities – the fading ordoliberal principles marked a breakpoint from the economic liberalism of the previous periods. In this regard, ‘the protective state’ is emerging that intervenes in the malfunctioning markets, and increases the spending in energy transition as well as that required by the new defence policy despite the debt brake, which Germany voted to suspend.

    Against this backdrop, Scholz embarked on a solo trip to Beijing, being the first European leader to do so in three years. This move signals that he prioritises national interests over European identity and common action. This sentiment is further underscored by his scepticism towards the EC’s launch of an anti-subsidy investigation into Chinese electric vehicles, a stance that differs from Macron’s support. Germany fears growing protectionism from China and its potential impact on the German car production market, which relies heavily on the Chinese market. 

    Similar calculations come into play regarding energy policies, where Germany views any subsidies for nuclear power as a threat to its existing renewable energy market, potentially putting German companies at a disadvantage. It is understandable from the perspective that the German economy stands as one of the  most vulnerable major economies under the current conditions, and hence, it requires diverged threat assessment towards foreign and economic policy. 

    It may be time for Macron to reconsider his European ideals. His vision for European sovereignty and reducing dependence on external powers aligns differently from the ambitions of individual European countries. Pursuing this path may lead to further divisions within the Union, which is counterproductive. The alliances already formed should not be discarded in an attempt to position Europe as a great power that primarily equates to France’s interests. This stance raises the question of whether Macron’s ideals for Europe are inherently national – an epitome that has long haunted the European project.

    The two countries, often regarded as the two “engines of Europe”, seem to be at an impasse on critical issues, and while the will for unity is present, Europe is likely to remain in a deadlock until a consensus is achieved. A “grand bargain” and compromises on both sides are necessary, but whether a change of mindset will occur remains to be seen. With Merkel no longer in the picture, reaching common ground is even more uncertain without proactive efforts to reconcile differences. The path forward is rocky, but the need for cooperation and unity within Europe has never been more critical.

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