German Foreign Policy – Clouds Gathering over German-French Relations

French President Emmanuel Macron announced “confrontations” with Berlin ahead of his meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel on 29 April. The background is that while the German government is consistently demanding France’s loyalty in asserting German interests in the EU, it is also consistently slowing down Parisian advances in favour of French interests. From Macron’s point of view, this is all the more serious because he is pushing through a German-inspired austerity policy and is therefore exposed to massive protests, but cannot achieve the successes in European and foreign policy that are indispensable to balance the two: Berlin denies it to him. Already in February Macron began attacking German interests in the EU, first in the dispute over the Nord Stream 2 pipeline; the “confrontations” are intended to force the German government to give in. While his predecessors had failed, Macron can now rely on Brexit: Without Great Britain, Germany would no longer have a majority at EU level on important economic policy issues.

German Foreign Policy is a German website compiled by a group of independent journalists and social scientists who observe, on an ongoing basis, Germany’s renewed attempts to regain great power status in the economic, military and political arena.

Originally published in German at German Foreign Policy

Translated and edited by BRAVE NEW EUROPE

Macron’s offer

Since taking office, French President Emmanuel Macron had been counting on receiving concessions in European policy from Berlin in return for the à l’allemande austerity policy that he began to implement domestically. One of his key demands was to restructure the Eurozone, which Macron wanted to equip with a finance minister and its own budget; this would create the conditions for reducing inequalities within the currency area and stabilising crisis-ridden countries in the course of time. In addition, the French President had called for the rapid creation of a military intervention force, particularly for operations in the African area of interest of the French elites. Noticeable successes in foreign and military policy were considered necessary, not least in order to cushion the anticipated criticism from the population about the austerity cuts.

Macron has his back to the wall

Just under two years after taking office, Macron stands empty-handed. Berlin has not only blocked its reform plans for the Eurozone because they run counter to the  German rigid austerity model [1]; it has also begun to slow down the French president’s plans for EU militarisation (“European Intervention Initiative”) and instead to push ahead with its own militarisation project (“PESCO”) [2]. “PESCO” is a long-term project and does not correspond to the Parisian interest in rapid operational capability. In addition, Berlin is stubbornly pressing for a “Europeanisation” of the French seat on the UN Security Council and of French nuclear weapons ( reported [3]) and has thus pushed the French government even further into the defensive. Macron also has his back to the wall in France. The protests of the “gilets jaunes” (“yellow vests”) have been going on for months; the attempt to take the wind out of their sails with a state-controlled debate (“grand débat”) was not fruitful: according to the latest polls about 75 percent of the population believe that the project will not solve the crisis[4] Already at the beginning of the year the proportion of French people who were dissatisfied with Macron’s administration had risen to three quarters of the population.[5]

Warning shots

In this situation Macron has begun to openly defend himself against German dominance in the EU, because, despite his policy of cuts à l’allemande and his other acts of loyalty to Berlin, the Germans do not even grant him small concessions in favour of his internal consolidation. A warning shot in the direction of Germany was that Macron surprisingly withdrew support from the Nord Stream 2 pipeline in February; the German government only managed to keep a solution for the project open with strong pressure[6] It was also an affront, albeit above all a symbolic one, that Macron cancelled a demonstrative joint appearance with Chancellor Angela Merkel at the Munich Security Conference – on the telling grounds that he had to devote himself primarily to the desolate internal state of France. In mid-April, Paris voted against the opening of formal negotiations on an EU trade agreement with the USA. The negotiations are above all in Berlin’s interest: Washington is threatening to impose tariffs on cars, particularly because of the German trade surplus, which would hit German industry hardest. France’s dissenting vote had no effect this time because of the majority principle, but is nevertheless a clear signal.

The German trade surpluses

At a press conference last week Macron announced further “confrontations” with the Federal Republic of Germany, promising new efforts to reform the Eurozone[7] As the Institut de relations internationales et stratégiques (IRIS) in Paris stated recently, this is a matter of principle: Germany’s export fixation, which relies on massive trade surpluses, is “at the expense of the country’s partners” and cannot be sustained in the long term. In the meantime, France’s Economics and Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire has begun to insist in Berlin on a move away from the one-sided fixation on exports. In the coming months Paris will probably again “more or less explicitly” address the issue of the “considerable German trade surplus”, according to the IRIS: After all, this has a more serious effect “on Germany’s European partners” than on the USA, whose president has put the debate about the excessive German export plus on the international agenda.[8] Even in the EU France is anything but alone with its criticism of German export policy.

“Quite normal”

Before the meeting between Macron and Merkel on the fringes of Berlin’s Western Balkans Summit on 29 April, the German government tried to play down the conflict. Although there are “occasional differences of opinion” between the two countries, a government spokeswoman is quoted as saying that this is “normal and necessary”. So far, a “solution” has always been found to disputes between the two nations[9] In fact, the “solution” was generally the one that Germany had favoured. One of the most recent examples is the digital tax that France had to introduce at national level in March – Berlin had stubbornly blocked it in the EU.[10]

Macron’s predecessors Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande had already failed in calling for a renunciation of Germany’s excessive export surpluses and a corresponding restructuring of the euro zone. But Macron has a significant advantage over them: after Britain’s withdrawal from the EU, there is no structural minority veto in the Union against those EU countries that reject the Berlin austerity dictates: “Brexit,” a recent commentary said, “gives the Mediterranean countries the weight of votes.”11] This gives rise to hopes that the economically weaker states of the Union can be freed from the stranglehold of the relentless Berlin austerity measures. Accordingly, Macron is now campaigning for a rapid Brexit – and is thus once again coming into conflict with Berlin.

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