The German and French governments are to embark on a “getting to know each other” boating and drinking trip in an attempt to repair rock-bottom relations.
The “team-building” outing next Monday and Tuesday will see the entire French cabinet decamp to Hamburg, the fiefdom of Olaf Scholz, the German chancellor. It comes as one influential German MEP warned that poor relations between the two countries were slowing down key decisions in the EU including deals on defence in Ukraine and trade.
Ministers will take part in what the Germans call a “Klausur”, or retreat, to network involving no negotiations, formal meetings or final statements. Instead, the ministers will simply go on a boat trip, chat, notably about artificial intelligence, and “drink together” before visiting a fish market.
Both sides hope the meeting will breathe life into an increasingly fractious relationship.
It comes amid French gripes Germany has discreetly jettisoned the unwritten rule of their “couple” relations whereby the Germans call the economic shots while France takes the lead on more “strategic” areas; notably defence, given the country’s seat on the UN Security Council and as a nuclear power. This shift took place since the start of the Ukraine conflict when Berlin vowed to pump €100 billion (£86 billion) into defence spending to meet the NATO target of 2 per cent of GDP.
‘Sense of Deutschland Uber Alles’
“There is an increasing sense of Deutschland Uber Alles,” said one senior source with knowledge of top-level political ties. “The Germans think they can go it alone. That is making things very complicated.”
The French, who have a huge nuclear power plant fleet, complain that the Germans are unfairly blocking all European negotiations on nuclear energy while pumping billions into carbon-emitting gas.
They complain their neighbours are refusing to agree to any wiggle room on EU deficit rules or to favour mutual investments, notably on green transition. They also accuse the Germans, whose economy is sputtering, of becoming “paranoid” about France “stealing market share” in a range of sectors.
The French sense that, unlike Angela Merkel, Chancellor Scholz cares little for their language and culture and has a “liberal” penchant that makes it hard to find common ground.
Whereas the French presidential system results in rapid “top down” decision-making, dithering Scholz was unable to cut short endless negotiations among the three-party German coalition government, leading to “total immobilism on all subjects”, said one source.
“At the moment we’re seeing a remarkable lack of internal coordination between Paris and Berlin. And that is not good,” David McAllister, chair of the European parliament’s foreign affairs committee and a key figure in the opposition Christian Democrats party.
The Franco-German relationship, long considered the driving force of the EU, was not “everything in Europe” but that without cooperation between the two countries “things don’t work”, he told the Guardian.
“In the end, Paris and Berlin need to agree to smooth things… and this is where I criticise the German government. I don’t think we have seen such little cooperation between Paris and Berlin as we are witnessing at the moment,” he added.
One of the most “prominent examples”, said Mr McAllister, was the fight to get decisions made on the next-generation European battle tank, an integral part of the main combat system in Ukraine or any other future war zone.
Last month Paris and Berlin promised to make progress by the end of the year after a meeting between Sébastien Lecornu, the French armed forces minister, and Boris Pistorius, his German counterpart, but disagreements persist.
“We do not see any kind of progress on the next, the future aircraft,” he said. Nor is there progress on a trade deal with the Mercosur bloc of Latin American countries, he said.
Development of the Système de Combat Aérien du Futur (SCAF) – or the Future Combat Air System in England – is increasingly opening up a rift between Paris and Berlin. Germany and France, who together with Spain are developing the SCAF, are increasingly at odds over how to fund the project, where it should be built and who the jets should be sold to.
Another long-running source of tensions is French insistence that a home-grown European defence industry must be cultivated. Germany’s European Sky Shield initiative, the missile defence project of which the UK is a member, will use US and Israeli-made Patriot and Arrow missiles.
The German olive branch of beers, boats and fish was a welcome “sign they want to connect”, said one top French source.