EuropeAnalysis

‘Let us wake up’: Macron warns of far-right on German trip as he and Scholz wrangle over hard issues

Three days prove not enough to overcome big differences between Paris and Berlin on how EU’s two biggest countries should tackle matters including security and climate

Emmanuel Macron is usually a bundle of energy, but he was clearly exhausted on Tuesday evening on concluding a three-day charm offensive in Germany – the first state visit there by a French president in 24 years.

At a joint press conference, and a month after Macron’s second big speech on the future of Europe, Chancellor Olaf Scholz – in a nod to the working dinner ahead – joked that the two still had some way to go to move from “Sunday speeches towards real politics of change”.

Three days were not enough to overcome marked differences between Paris and Berlin on the ways and means of how the EU’s two biggest countries should tackle big issues, from security to climate. But Macron remarked that the two capitals “always agree in the end – that is the most important thing for the future”.

How much future there will be for the EU is not clear, he warned earlier, saying “neither Europe nor peace are guaranteed forever”, and that they are under threat from extremism of the few – and apathy of the many.

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In the Saxon capital, Dresden, Macron warned on Monday evening that a far-right “ill wind is blowing in Europe, so let us wake up”.

It may be too late for next month’s European elections – and for Saxony: in four months, a state election there could make the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), currently on 35 per cent in polls, the strongest party in the state parliament.

The French leader’s messaging on Russia, familiar from last month’s Sorbonne speech, sounded quite different when recycled for eastern Germans in Dresden.

Many here spent decades behind the Iron Curtain, and just 53 per cent of them see Russia as their greatest security threat, according to a recent poll, compared to 80 per cent in western Germany.

Similarly, Saxon state premier Michael Kretschmer, listening to Macron from the front row in Dresden, suggested in December that Ukraine should accept a ceasefire with lost territory.

At the final press conference with Scholz, the French leader pulled a map from his pocket to show the number of missile launch sites behind Russian lines. These are out of reach for Ukraine because it has committed not to use western weapons for targets outside its own territory.

“What we wish is to have the possibility to strike these missile launch facilities,” said Macron. “We would not allow other places, in particular civilian targets, to be attacked. If we do this in a focused way I don’t think this would lead to an escalation.”

The German leader, who has spoken openly of his fears of an escalation, was more cautious – though also seemed more flexible than in the past.

“Ukraine has every option under international law for what it does, it was attacked and is allowed defend itself,” said Scholz. “I find strange some discussions that Ukraine may not take certain measures to defend itself. That was never a condition of ours, from other countries in Europe or friendly states.”

The sense of unfinished business pervaded their joint press conference. In particular, Berlin has yet to deliver a substantive response to French proposals for greater EU co-operation to tackle the big challenges, from climate change to joint European security.

Macron also proposed doubling the Brussels budget “financed either through investment strategy or common debt issuance”.

This has already been done at least twice before, the president said on Tuesday, noting stimulus measures such as the 2014 “Juncker plan” for infrastructure investment, or the €750 billion pandemic recovery fund, backed in part by EU-issued debt. Before journalists, Macron reminded Scholz how, as German finance minister, he had embraced the latter plan.

As chancellor, Scholz is far more cautious. With an economy in recession, the chancellor has tasked his neoliberal finance minister with pruning back domestic spending, leaving no room for additional European commitments.

That is why, in a joint Financial Times op-ed on Tuesday, Scholz and Macron urged Europe to go after private capital and “unlock the full potential of our capital markets”.

Ahead of evening talks on further, closer defence co-operation and on air defences, German analysts suggested there was some way to go for France and Germany to overcome “quite a bit of annoyance on both sides in the last two years”.

“There is a concrete expectation among people to see real progress,” said Prof Vorländer of Dresden’s Technical University. “But there was nothing new and I fear the different perspectives won’t come together.”