French President Emmanuel Macron has hosted German Chancellor Olaf Scholz for lunch, with the leaders hoping to pare back differences on energy and defence and revitalise the European Union’s key double act.
Both leaders were all smiles on Wednesday as Scholz climbed out of his black Mercedes in the courtyard of the Elysee Palace to shake hands, although the German appeared to sidestep Macron’s attempts to put an arm around him.
Hackles have been raised on both sides since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine – less than three months after Scholz took office last December – prompted crisis decisions taken under the pressure of the war and its knock-on effects.
Berlin’s move to spend up to 200 billion euros ($200bn) subsidising soaring gas prices and refusal to consider an EU-wide energy price cap nettled Paris and other European capitals, which fear the effect on their energy costs.
And France also sees commitments to cooperate on defence procurement floundering, given Germany’s plans for a shared missile shield with other NATO nations using American equipment.
Longer-term projects to jointly develop new fighter jets and tanks also face reluctance from big arms companies, which has worsened since the war broke out.
The depth of the differences was laid bare by the recent delay to a regular joint cabinet meeting between Paris and Berlin, which would have been Scholz’s first as chancellor.
And limited expectations for Wednesday’s talks were clear from the schedule released by Macron’s office, which did not provide for a joint news conference.
“The two leaders will continue their talks on defence, the economy and energy with the aim of strengthening Franco-German cooperation,” the presidency said in a statement.
Differences between the EU’s two largest and most populous economies – in the past often the brokers of compromise among the bloc’s 27 members – have come at exactly the wrong time.
Russia’s invasion and the resulting disruption to the energy system have coincided with rising tensions between China and the West, as well as fears that more isolationist forces could return to power in Washington.
Berlin and Paris also differ on how to adapt the EU to be more agile faced with new challenges, and how quickly to admit new members.
“We can’t allow ourselves not to have a united, strong Europe at this moment in history,” former French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin warned on France Inter radio.
“That starts with a fruitful French-German dialogue,” he added.
Moscow’s burning of bridges with Europe means Germany faces “a change to its model whose destabilising nature must not be underestimated”, Macron has said.
That was made clear earlier this year, when Scholz announced a “new era” in German defence policy supported by significant spending on its creaking military.
Although Berlin’s allies welcomed the change of direction after years of under-investment, the flow of cash has not translated into big contracts for the EU or especially French arms firms – one of the undertones of Macron’s calls for greater European sovereignty.
Instead, Germany is rushing to buy big-ticket American-made items like F-35 fighter jets and Patriot air defence systems.