Angela Merkel outlines plans for European Health Union
The EU is supposed to be a democratic union of 27 members. However, the bloc, and its predecessor versions, have always relied upon Germany and France as its anchor tenants. It was the French wartime hero and later President Charles de Gaulle who famously told the German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer in 1963 that, “Europe is France and Germany; the rest are just the trimmings”.
More than half a century later, de Gaulle’s comment is still relevant.
At the end of August, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron met in a Medieval island fortress in the Mediterranean to chart the next steps for the partnership that is the driving force behind the bloc.
Inside the walls of Fort de Brégançon, the traditional summer residence of French leaders, the German Chancellor and French President attempted to tackle the most pressing issues on the global agenda.
At the same time Mrs Merkel was seeking to cement progress on some long-standing objectives, including deciding what relationship Europe should have with a resurgent China, re-imagining the shape of the EU after Britain’s exit, and carving out a role for Europe as a defence power to match its economic might.
A German government source said: “Both Merkel and Macron are aware that the EU is in a crucial period.
“And that France and Germany – even though they have different views on a lot of issues – have to stick together.”
EU crisis as Merkel’s furious outburst at Macron exposed: ‘Tired of picking up pieces’
French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel
There have been several occasions in which the two leaders have been at loggerheads with each other, though.
In November 2019, Mrs Merkel was uncharacteristically furious with Mr Macron.
At a dinner to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, she huddled with the French President, who had just given an interview, in which he cited the “brain death” of NATO and wondered whether its commitment to collective defence still held.
Mr Macron had also been the sole leader to veto the start of lengthy membership talks for North Macedonia to join the EU.
In the emotive outburst, Mrs Merkel raged: “I understand your desire for disruptive politics, but I’m tired of picking up the pieces.
“Over and over, I have to glue together the cups you have broken so that we can then sit down and have a cup of tea together.”
Mr Macron defended himself, saying that he could not simply go to a NATO meeting in London in December and pretend that the United States and Turkey had behaved in the collective interest in Syria.
He said: “I cannot sit there and act like nothing has happened.”
French President Emmanuel Macron
Responding to the confrontation, Norbert Röttgen, a member of Mrs Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU) party and chairman of the Bundestag’s foreign affairs committee, defended the Chancellor.
But he told German newspaper Bild: “It does not help anything. We must bring the relationship with France back on a constructive path.”
Mr Röttgen also demanded: “For this we must not always wait for Macron’s proposals, but have to make their own or at least one proposal.
“For example, a joint 5G network for Germany and France, a bi-national government bond for innovation. We could become a repairer for German-French ideas.”
Claudia Major, a security analyst with the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, told the New York Times: “I haven’t seen Franco-German relations at such a low point in a very long time.
“I’ve rarely seen such bitterness and misunderstanding.”
It was not the first time the two leaders failed to see eye to eye on an important issue.
In 2015, Mr Macron, who at the time was Minister of the Economy, tried to help Greece avoid crippling austerity measures but was frozen out of negotiations by Mrs Merkel.
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Former Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis
The confrontation, which came at the height of the 2015 Greek debt crisis, was noted in “Adults in the Room”, the memoir of Yanis Varoufakis, the former Greek finance minister who tried to win debt relief for Greece.
Mr Macron formed a strong bond with Mr Varoufakis, as he believed the crippling austerity being inflicted on Greece in return for bailouts could lead to the ultimate destruction of the eurozone.
On June 28, 2015, with Greece’s bank on the cusp of closure, Mr Varoufakis wrote that he received a text from Mr Macron offering to broker a last-minute deal to win debt-relief for Greece in return for structural reforms.
Offering to broker a meeting between the Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras and former French President Francois Hollande, Mr Macron wrote: “I do not want my generation to be the one responsible for Greece exiting Europe.”
The attempt, however, was blocked by then-German Minister of Finance Wolfgang Schauble, who wanted Greece to take a “holiday” from membership of the euro.
Three months later, after Mr Varoufakis had resigned in protest at the Greek government’s capitulation to its troika of creditors, Mr Macron explained that the German leader had elbowed him aside after he had called the Greek debt deal a “modern-day version of the Versailles Treaty”.
Mr Varoufakis wrote: “Merkel had heard him and, according to Emmanuel, ordered Hollande to keep Macron out of the Greek negotiations.
“Merkel’s spell was every bit as powerful as I had imagined.”
In an earlier episode, though, Mr Macron did manage to persuade Mrs Merkel to order the Eurogroup creditors to compromise with Greece, leading to the brokering of a respite period in February of that year, which proved short-lived.
Professor Alan Sked
German Finance Minister Olaf Scholz
While France and Germany may have had their differences in the past, in an exclusive interview with Express.co.uk, Ukip founder Alan Sked claimed Mrs Merkel might actually be plotting something alongside the French leader.
He said: “Macron has been a great advocate for a federal Europe.
“He has made great speeches, calling for Europe to be united and having a fiscal union, a monetary union, which includes a bank, one treasury, one finance minister and some sort of financial parliament.
“Merkel and the Germans don’t actually believe in that but Merkel is about to retire and the rumour is that she wants to have some kind of historical legacy because so far there is not very much she can claim as hers.”
Prof Sked added: “There is this persistent rumour that she would like to go down with some positive legacy and that she will do something about the fiscal union.
“I am not sure the Bundestag will accept it, though.”
In October, German Finance Minister Olaf Scholz said the EU was already taking a step towards a fiscal union with its plans to recover from the coronavirus pandemic – which involve the European Commission borrowing in financial markets.
Mr Scholz told an interparliamentary conference on stability, economic coordination and governance in Brussels: “We are moving towards fiscal union, a major step forward in the financial capacity and sovereignty of the EU.”
To support the bloc’s economy, the EU has announced a €750billion (£678billion) recovery fund.
He added: “Markets have confidence in European policies and in the development of European economies.
“We should carry on with this course.”