Macron and Scholz meet and call for more "European sovereignty"

PARIS – A priori, President Emmanuel Macron, a showman, and Chancellor Olaf Scholz, a student in reserve, would not be natural companion...


PARIS – A priori, President Emmanuel Macron, a showman, and Chancellor Olaf Scholz, a student in reserve, would not be natural companions. But the world has changed, and for France and Germany the imperative to build what they call a “sovereign Europe” has become overwhelming.

Thus, Mr Scholz, who took over from Angela Merkel on Wednesday, chose France as his first foreign destination, not only because this is generally what newly installed German chancellors do, but also because, as he has said to stand alongside Mr Macron in Paris on Friday, “We want to strengthen Europe, work together for European sovereignty.”

The two, who first met in Hamburg in 2014, hosted a working lunch at the presidential palace that reflected “the essential need to meet quickly,” as Mr Scholz said during the meeting. a 20-minute press conference. “Our first exchanges demonstrated a solid convergence of views,” said Mr. Macron.

Their tone was serious but friendly, with Mr Macron repeatedly referring to ‘dear Olaf’ and using the less formal ‘you’ rather than ‘you’, when addressing the Chancellor. At the end of the press conference, they thumped their fists – a far cry from President Francois Mitterrand and Chancellor Helmut Kohl holding hands on the Verdun battlefield in 1984, but an indication of friendship in the era of Covid.

Mr Scholz’s accession to “European sovereignty” has surely been music to Mr Macron’s ears, as he prepares to assume the six-month rotating presidency of the European Union on January 1. The bloc faces an immediate crisis as Russia reinforces its troops on the Ukrainian border and the coronavirus pandemic refuses to decline.

Asked about the Russian build-up, Mr Scholz said: “It is clear to all of us that there is no alternative to de-escalation. Mr Macron, who seemed skeptical of any looming Russian threat, said: “We must avoid unnecessary tension.

that of Mr. Macron vision of a Europe of “power”, supported by a real European military and technological capacity, tends towards the grandiose. Mr Scholz may not like this style – his coalition prefers the more prosaic “strengthening the capacity for European action” – but the general objective is intensely shared, perhaps more than in recent years Merkel or at any time since the Cold War.

The distance between shared objectives and shared action in the European Union is still great because 27 countries have to be aligned. Yet the trauma of Covid-19 and the economic challenges that accompany it have made it urgent, as has a sense of European vulnerability in a more unstable world where American leadership is no longer assured.

“I am more optimistic than I was with Mrs Merkel towards the end,” said Wolfgang Ischinger, a veteran German diplomat. “We have a window of opportunity.”

This window can be narrow. Any joint Franco-German project could be abruptly halted in April if Mr. Macron is defeated in the presidential election. He is the frontrunner, but if France were to move towards the ascending nationalist hard right, all bets would be off. A German priority in the coming months will be to avoid this result, making accommodative gestures towards Mr. Macron more likely.

France and Germany have always been the driving force behind European integration; when they stall, the whole project too. Although the need to deal with the pandemic brought budget breakthroughs, Europe found itself in the shadow of Brexit and internal divide as China rose and the United States turned its attention elsewhere.

The 177-page coalition agreement of Mr Scholz’s tripartite government hints at an ultimate move towards a “European federal state”. Mr Macron, with the election in mind, did not go so far – France’s attachment to the nation is fierce – but the mere German mention of a United States of Europe suggests new daring and renewed ambition .

Yet there are differences. Where Mr. Macron speaks of European “strategic autonomy”, Mr. Scholz prefers “strategic sovereignty”. The difference is not small.

“The Germans don’t want strategic autonomy if it means independence from the United States,” said Cathryn Clüver, director of the German Council on Foreign Relations.

The French president praised the rigorous NATO during the presentation on Thursday of his program for the European presidency. He said he had proven his “usefulness”. But he largely sees European independence as an emancipation of the United States.

Germany, intensely attached for historical reasons to the American anchoring of European security, is wary of any strategic distancing from Washington. This point of view is widely shared in several states of the European Union, including Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic, especially at a time when Russian troops are massed on the Ukrainian border.

All this complicates both the meaning and accessibility of any European sovereignty whatsoever.

France and Germany share the view that they have preserved a multilateral global system based on the rule of law and Western values ​​while the United States, under former President Donald J. Trump, has embraced nationalism and denigrated Europe.

They have not been reassured by what they see as a paltry consultation from the Biden administration on Afghanistan and the sale of nuclear submarines to Australia. They see a growing ideological and economic threat from China. Hence the desire to make a more independent and innovative Europe count.

“The last big European innovation was the euro,” said Ischinger. “Since then, we have rested on our laurels. It’s time for the next round of innovation. The euro was introduced almost two decades ago.

Healing the economy affected by the pandemic will be at the heart of any European leap forward. The two leaders hinted on Friday that they were ready to build on the European Union’s groundbreaking $ 750 billion stimulus fund, created 18 months ago to fight the ravages of the coronavirus.

The deal broke with long-held German economic orthodoxy by backing collective European debt, signaling a new willingness in Berlin to embrace greater fiscal flexibility.

“The recovery and reconstruction fund is a great example of what we can accomplish,” said Mr. Scholz. “At the same time, we must work on the soundness of our finances. It is not contradictory in my opinion.

Mr. Macron, as is his inclination, was more daring. He said Europe must adopt new rules, or find new flexibility, to ensure that the union moves towards full employment and “builds the channels of innovation and industry that will enable the Europe to have a greener, more digital and more sovereign economy, all of which implies massive investments.

The French president argued on Thursday, before meeting with Scholz, that the European Union’s strict ceiling on annual budget deficits – 3% of a country’s gross domestic product – should not hamper investment strategies ambitious.

“We have to leave the old taboos and the old fetishes behind us,” Macron said.

Germany, whose eternal specters include the hyperinflation of the 1920s, would tend to view fiscal discipline as a useful fetish.

Generally speaking, while the French proposals for a more powerful Europe tend towards soaring rhetoric, Germany is focusing on practice.

Mr Scholz’s coalition agreement calls for the introduction of qualified majority voting on foreign policy decisions – a step that would likely make Europe much more efficient in emergency situations. France was not ready to accept it because of its attachment to national sovereignty and because its army, the most competent in the Union after the departure of Great Britain, could be entrusted with the responsibility of a decision that France did not approve.

Likewise, at the United Nations, where France has a permanent seat on the Security Council, “she rarely speaks as a European power, she speaks as France,” said Christoph Heusgen, the former chief political adviser of Ms Merkel and now chairman of the Munich Security Conference. “The enthusiasm for Europe to speak with one voice stops there.”

Ms Scholz will spend the rest of the day in Brussels, NATO and the European Commission – also stops that are part of the established German post-election protocol.

Roger Cohen reported from Paris and Katrin Bennhold from Berlin. Aurelien Breeden contributed to the report from Paris.

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Newsrust - US Top News: Macron and Scholz meet and call for more "European sovereignty"
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