Things are not going so smoothly between German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and French President Emmanuel Macron these days as bilateral ties between their countries have reached a new low point.
Relations between Berlin and Paris have often been strained in the past. But this time, the timing is extremely bad -- and the rift seems deeper than before.
The fact that both countries had to postpone this year's Council of Ministers meeting to the beginning of next year is evidence of the deep disagreements between the partner countries.
Last week’s hastily scheduled visit by Scholz to Paris, where he met with Macron -- which ended without a press conference -- cannot hide this at all. And while such disagreements aren't necessarily exceptional, they come at the worst possible time, when Europe is facing the Russian war in Ukraine and an energy crisis.
While the German side stressed that both leaders tried to settle their differences on some of the issues during the talks in Paris, questions remain.
Problems mar joint armaments and energy projects
In addition to the dispute over how to deal with the energy crisis, there are other controversial issues. There is a particular problem with defense policy. In light of the war in Ukraine, Paris and Berlin wanted to boost European defenses, but joint armament projects such as the development of the new FCAS combat aircraft are not making any real progress.
While Germany wants to build a better European air defense system with 14 other countries, France is staying out, reportedly worried about a possible arms race.
The reason for the French reluctance could also be that the defense system could come from Israel or the US -- and the French-Italian system Mamba is left out.
But joint military projects are not the only point of contention. Berlin is also deeply frustrated over plans by Paris to ditch the controversial Midcat gas pipeline across the Pyrenees.
Spain and Portugal have port terminals for liquefied natural gas, and Berlin had hoped the gas could be shipped from there to Germany on a large scale, as a substitute for Russian natural gas.
The long-planned Midcat tube could have made this possible by creating a better connection between the Spanish and French pipeline networks, but Macron vetoed the construction of Midcat.
Experts stress Scholz, Macron key to European stability
While chancellery spokesman Steffen Hebestreit was trying to downplay the cancellation of the Franco-German government talks, political experts said it was quite an unusual act in the history of post-war bilateral relations.
"Ever since these summits were held in 1963 -- and they were contractually stipulated -- none of them have ever been canceled," the deputy director of the Franco-German Institute (DFI) based in the southern German city of Ludwigsburg, Stefan Seidendorf, told the Deutsche Welle (DW) broadcasting network.
"Most new heads of state have to go through a learning process to understand that these meetings and the Franco-German axis are actually important. That was the case with former German Chancellor Ludwig Erhard or France's (President) Nicolas Sarkozy," added Seidendorf, referring to Chancellor Scholz, who has now been in office for a year.
He stressed that both Germany and France were key to ensuring a politically stable Europe.
"No European country is big enough to ensure political stability on its own. We need a basic consensus between Germany and France, whose positions are always the most divergent. The other member states can use this middle ground as a guide."
Seidendorf’s remarks were echoed by Éric-André Martin of the Paris-based think-tank Institut Français des Relations Internationales.
The differences are also a risk for cooperation in the European Union, Martin said. Ironically, during the energy crisis and the Russian war against Ukraine, the Franco-German engine in Europe failed, the German Handelsblatt business daily quoted Martin as saying.
While Scholz had initially assured that he wanted to work together with Macron for a strong Europe, not much of this will is left today.
The French leader also caused a stir at the recent EU summit in Brussels with his warning of German isolation in Europe as a result of Berlin’s resistance to a European gas price cap.
German media urges both leaders to settle their differences
The deepening rift between Scholz and Macron is also a cause of concern for the German media, which says there is a sense of urgency for the EU to deal with the Russian war in Ukraine and chart out a new strategy towards China.
The Frankfurt-based daily Frankfurter Rundschau said in an editorial that “Macron and Scholz should urgently end their dispute and clear up the disputed points. After all, we are in a trade war with Russia and need to rethink our relationship with China.”
The Hannoversche Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper warned that only one person would gain from the Franco-German dispute, and that would be Russian President Vladimir Putin, as he would want “to split the EU as much as possible with his war against Ukraine.”
Summing up current Franco-German state affairs, the Berlin-based TAZ newspaper said it was perhaps time for creating a new partnership between these two European powerhouses.
“In the interest of the whole EU, the Franco-German couple cannot avoid naming the differences and reinventing the partnership based on what they really have in common,” it said.
AA/Oliver Towfigh Nia