During Emmanuel Macron’s first term as French president, his European policy underwent three phases.
First came the charm offensive vis-à-vis Berlin. He told Bundestag lawmakers, “Don’t forget, France loves you!” and pressed then Chancellor Angela Merkel to agree to a Franco-German agenda at Meseberg in 2018. This EU policy à la François Mitterrand focused on reviving the so-called Franco-German motor, and it failed. Merkel and Germany’s political elite did not really see the need to change the EU radically to build Macron’s “sovereign Europe.”
Second came the “baby Macron” phase. A frustrated French president started to call out Berlin. Remember Macron criticizing Germany’s “savings fetishism,” calling NATO “brain-dead,” or blocking the opening of EU accession talks with Albania and North Macedonia? The idea was to get Berlin moving by reminding Merkel that Paris could obstruct German EU plans as well. That strategy à la Charles de Gaulle was at best partially helpful.
Then came the winning third phase. Macron realized that to get Berlin moving he needed neither to charm nor provoke Merkel. He simply needed to start doing EU politics without her. The €750 billion pandemic recovery fund financed by common debt, the EU’s carbon border tax, the rule of law mechanisms in the new EU budget, and upping the EU’s climate objectives had all one thing in common: Paris built large coalitions of EU member states to advance the cause without waiting for Berlin. At some point the Macron-led coalitions were so big that skeptical Merkel joined the bandwagon. Paris and Berlin then negotiated the ultimate compromise solution.
That strategy was a true historical innovation. France and Germany no longer initiated EU policy and set the guiding lights for the union. Rather, Macron’s new strategy turned the Paris-Berlin axis into a deal-closing machine. It allowed European integration to advance even if the Franco-German motor jammed.
Scholz Is no Merkel
So why is this strategy failing today? Because Scholz is no Merkel. He is a Macron.
The French president and the German chancellor are surprisingly similar. They both have won elections against all odds. Both thus think they are smarter than everyone else. And both are not smart enough to hide it. Macron’s arrogance shows in his regular mansplaining sessions. Scholz’ arrogance shows in his unwillingness to explain what he is doing. Both have trouble taking criticism and constantly engage in post-rationalization. Self-reflection is not really their thing. To put it another way: Neither Macron nor Scholz are in the market to write a self-development book once they leave power.
Now, getting two “know-it-alls” to work together is always difficult. But the bigger complication is that Scholz has a different conception of EU politics and Germany’s role in it than his predecessor.
The Merkel-Macron tandem worked for a number of reasons. With Merkel in charge, Berlin was by and large content with the status quo in the EU, and Berlin did not launch many EU initiatives itself. And especially toward the end of her chancellorship Merkel was above all concerned with maintaining EU unity. She saw her role as flexibly moderating EU debates, which as a part-time job meant picking up the pieces if one of Macron’s cavalier seul initiatives caused trouble.
In contrast, Scholz realizes that the status quo in the EU is not enough anymore. There needs to be enlargement. There is the energy crisis. And there is the China slowdown, which is posing truly fundamental problems for Germany’s economy. Under Scholz, Berlin is thus pivoting from a passive actor to becoming a demandeur with an offensive EU agenda .
This explains why the pre-existing Franco-German splits on EU defense, energy, and China policy have become more visible today. But that is not what led Macron to ring the alarm bell on the Franco-German relationship. Differences on substance have always existed.
The real issue is that Scholz no longer attributes a special role to Franco-German relations in the EU.
In fact, Scholz is copying Macron’s modus operandi of building coalitions to advance his EU goals without including the partner from the other side of the Rhine. Scholz’ failed attempt to build an alliance with Spain and Portugal to get Paris to build the MidCat gas pipeline from the Iberian Peninsula to France across the Pyrenees is a case in point. The proposition for a European missile defense system that includes the United Kingdom, but not Italy and France, is another.
The “never without France” maxim of Scholz’ big idol, former Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, is history. Scholz says the EU’s center of gravity is moving eastward. In speeches he keeps repeating that Germany is Europe’s strongest economy, in the middle of the continent, and must thus assume its leadership role in Europe. There is no more time for “leading from behind,” another of Schmidt’s maxims.
The implicit messaging of Scholz’s EU speeches is that Europe needs to outgrow the Franco-German tandem that is a source of ressentiments in central and eastern EU countries—because it is exclusive, but also because it was so wrong on Russia. To rebuild trust in the east, Berlin has to create equidistance to France.
It is indeed remarkable how Scholz as chancellor has avoided at all times using the word “Franco-German tandem” or the like—an expression that Merkel had no problem uttering and which is so important to France. Scholz watchers know that he thinks less about what to say than about what not to say … which is a lot. It is still stunning how much public and political pressure was needed until Scholz said that he wanted Ukraine to “win” the war?
Weimar, Mon Amour
The problem is: Scholz’s analysis about the changing nature of Europe is right, but his conclusions are wrong. If Germany becomes a sort of libero player on the EU’s football pitch with no special attachment to anyone, it will end up being alone. Germany’s flirtation with Schaukelpolitik (or “see-saw policy”) was never a good idea in history.
Scholz cannot do what Macron does and engage in strategic disloyalties, precisely because Germany is Europe’s preponderant power. After all, one of the primary functions of the EU is to keep Germany in check.
But with Scholz in the chancellery, Macron needs to pivot as well. His escapades to nudge Berlin were okay when Merkel was there. But now the French president needs to invest in the Franco-German relationship, as he did at the beginning of his presidency. He needs to tie Scholz to him, and work toward an updated Meseberg framework. Macron’s idea of a European Political Community could and should have been a Franco-German proposal.
Finally, the Franco-German couple is good for eurozone affairs, but for the larger EU it is indeed not sufficient anymore. But instead of ditching it, Scholz must enlarge the Franco-German relationship to include Poland. Sure, Warsaw is a difficult partner. But France and Poland are not only Germany’s biggest neighbors. They are also the ones that for historic and practical reasons fear German power and solo efforts most. Europe needs more German intimacy, not equidistance. The Weimar Triangle is still Europe’s biggest unfulfilled promise.
Joseph de Weck is INTERNATIONALE POLITIK QUARTERLY’s Paris columnist and author of Emmanuel Macron. The revolutionary president.