EU on brink: ‘Toxic’ Franco-German relations exposed as Brexit ‘weakens Merkel’

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Germans are apparently split over whether French President Emmanuel Macron’s power in Europe is in their best interest. One the one hand, Mr Macron is profoundly pro-European, as opposed to the National Rally’s Marine Le Pen, who he beat to the presidency back in 2017, which should help protect the integrity of the EU amid the Brexit shake-up. On the other hand, he carries a certain weight in Europe that some in Germany perceive as a threat to Germany’s dominance, especially considering the UK’s exit from the bloc.

Brexit could damage Germany’s power because the UK and Germany are more aligned economically, with France leaning far more to the left, so German Chancellor Angela Merkel will be losing a key ally in that department.

After Mr Macron was elected, Mrs Merkel asserted that his win would be good for Franco-German relations.

Her spokesman Steffen Seibert tweeted in both French and German: “Your victory is a victory for a strong and United Europe and for French-German friendship.”

However, German newspaper Der Tagesspiegel was a little more cautious.

After Mr Macron’s election, it read: “Emmanuel Macron’s victory reinforces France’s weight within the EU, to the detriment of Germany, weakened by Brexit which deprives it of a parsion ally of economic liberalism.”

Since then, the relationship between France and Germany ‒ and their leaders President Macron and Chancellor Merkel ‒ has suffered.

Mark Leonard, the director of the European Council on Foreign Relations, told The Guardian in December: “The Franco-German relationship is the single most important relationship in the EU and it’s in a totally toxic condition.

“And it’s going to get worse before it gets better.”

For one thing, Mr Macron and Mrs Merkel have hugely different leadership styles ‒ the French leader is a young, ambitious and impatient first-term President, while the German leader is a cautious, pragmatic, consensus-building fourth-term Chancellor.

While the EU is looking to Mr Macron and Mrs Merkel for leadership with coronavirus and Brexit, both leaders are facing domestic problems that have exacerbated their personal differences.

Not only that but their electorates have vastly different views of Europe ‒ in general, the French do not see the EU as working properly and desire a big shake-up, whereas Germans tend to think the bloc is working fine as it is.

Mr Macron, now over half way through his mandate at the Élysée Palace, has become increasingly frustrated with Mrs Merkel’s slow pragmatism.

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To make matters even more tricky, her authority has weakened since she announced she would not run again when her term ends in 2021 and her grand coalition of Christian Democrats (CDU) and Social Democrats (SPD) is divided and worried about pressure from the Greens on the left and the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) on the right.

Francois Heisbourg of the International Institute for Strategic Studies said: “Germany is in political paralysis, incapable of taking a major decision, and will probably remain so until elections in September 2021.

“Hence Macron’s frustration: France has ideas; Germany is sticking its fingers in its ears.”

The make-up of Mrs Merkel’s coalition doesn’t help either.

The centre-left SPD opposes Mr Macron’s proposals on developing an EU military and security capability, while the conservative CDU is against his plans for further economic integration of the Eurozone.

Mr Leonard said: “Macron basically bet the farm on building a new relationship with Germany, reforming France and working with Berlin to reform Europe.

“He appointed German-speaking ministers and spent his first year wooing the Germans ‒ but nothing materialised, so he pivoted.”

He added that the French President “has not hung around for Berlin, or even shied away from upsetting it.

“His approach has been to launch his initiatives, try to build relationships with other countries and involve the Germans later. It hasn’t gone down very well.”

Other European players have also been irritated by President Macron’s maverick ways, not being afraid to stand alone on a topic, for example when he insisted on a shorter Article 50 extension, imposed his line-up for top jobs and vetoed EU accession talks for North Macedonia.

After the French leader told The Economist that Nato was “brain dead”, Mrs Merkel apparently told him she understood his “desire for disruptive politics” but was “tired of picking up the pieces”.

In December, Mr Macron and Mrs Merkel had a private dinner in London where they cleared the air.

It was the first step in repairing their relationship, but it will likely take more than one meeting to heal the divisions that have been appearing on the continent.

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