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Macron hails new German Chancellor Scholz as Europe’s new power couple meets

French President Emmanuel Macron hailed a "convergence of views" with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz on Friday as the two men met for their first talks as leaders.

France's Emmanuel Macron and Germany's Olaf Scholz meet in Paris on Friday.
France's Emmanuel Macron and Germany's Olaf Scholz meet in Paris on Friday. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/AP | Thibault Camus

Macron and Scholz, both pro-EU centrists, are the new tandem in charge of Europe’s biggest economies that have the greatest influence inside the 27-member European Union.

Scholz, a Social Democrat, heads a new coalition whose commitment to strengthening Europe’s “strategic sovereignty” has raised hopes of progress in the fervently pro-EU French government.

Addressing Scholz as “dear Olaf” and using the informal “tu” pronoun in French, Macron said he had seen “a convergence of views, a desire to have our countries work together, and a firm and determined belief in Europe, which I knew already, which we will need in the months and years ahead.”

The visit was “a very important moment to build solid foundations for cooperation between our countries,” he added at a news conference.

Scholz made Paris his first overseas stop after taking over on Wednesday from Angela Merkel at the end of her 16 years in power.

He said the talks focused on “making Europe strong and European sovereignty.”

“What is important there is that we work together,” he said.

Scholz will continue on to Brussels on Friday for talks with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and EU chief Ursula von der Leyen on Friday, as well as European Council president Charles Michel ahead of a bloc summit next week.

New agenda

Macron laid out an ambitious agenda Thursday for a “Europe that is powerful in the world” during France’s time as the rotating president of the 27 member Council of the European Union in the first half of next year.

The 43-year-old wants to make further progress towards building up European defence capabilities and border forces, as well as devising ways of financing huge public investments in strategic industries considered vital for EU sovereignty.

Analysts say Macron’s desire for more flexible budget rules in the EU, enabling governments to run larger deficits, could run into opposition from a Germany that has historically insisted on financial rigour.

Scholz said there was “not a contradiction” between wanting to finance ambitious investments to ensure growth, and solid public finances.

“For me, they are two sides of the same coin,” said Scholz, who was previously German finance minister and helped push through a historic EU fund for a Covid recovery last year that saw the bloc raise money collectively for the first time.

The 63-year-old has long backed Germany’s trademark budget austerity goals, but he threw his weight behind the EU recovery fund to help Europe cope with the pandemic – going further than Merkel.

READ ALSO: Five challenges facing Germany’s new government

Russian tensions 

As well as discussing the European Union, the two leaders also talked about the Russian troop buildup on Ukraine’s border, as well as relations with China and the African continent.

“All must accept that borders in Europe cannot be changed. This rule is for everyone,” Scholz said in reference to Russian leader Vladimir Putin, who has been accused by the US of planning an invasion of its neighbour.

Scholz and Putin
Olaf Scholz sits alongside former Chancellor Merkel at a meeting with Vladimir Putin during the G20 Summit in 2019. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Bernd von Jutrczenka

Scholz had warned Moscow on Thursday of “consequences” for the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, a Russian project to deliver natural gas to Germany and a major source of friction with many partners, including France.

As Western powers threaten punishing new sanctions against Moscow, the project could soon play a central role.

“With Nord Stream 2, Germany has the big geopolitical weapon in its hand without ever having sought it,” said Ulrich Speck, an analyst at the German Marshall Fund.

READ ALSO: Merkel: Russia and Germany should talk despite ‘deep differences’

Defence

Macron was expected to press Scholz behind closed doors on his desire to see Germany play a more active role in global security affairs.

The German coalition’s pact makes no mention of the pledge for all NATO member states to commit two percent of their gross domestic product to defence by 2024.

French Foreign Minister Yves Le Drian also asked Thursday for stronger German support in foreign missions, including operations against jihadist groups in the Sahel region of western Africa, saying Berlin had “an important role to play”.

Political scientist Andrea Roemmele of the Hertie School of Governance expects closer cooperation with Paris on security policy under Scholz.

But with the French presidential elections looming next year, Berlin will likely “take a wait-and-see stance” on projects, particularly given the threat of a strong showing by the far right.

By Adam PLOWRIGHT with Deborah COLE in Berlin

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ANGELA MERKEL

What do Germans think of Merkel a year after her departure?

Angela Merkel left the German chancellery on December 8th, 2021 at the height of her global stature. Twelve months on, it is hard to find a more precipitous drop in popularity and prestige in modern European politics.

What do Germans think of Merkel a year after her departure?

The offices accorded to the former leader are in view of the Russian embassy, where since the Ukraine invasion in February Berliners regularly leave signs and flowers protesting the war.

Long called the world’s most powerful woman, Merkel these days has pulled back from the spotlight, working on her memoirs and enjoying the occasional television series, such as “The Crown”, which tells the story of Queen Elizabeth II’s turbulent decades on the throne.

But in many quarters the broad German support she once enjoyed as a staunch defender of Western liberal values has curdled.

“One year on, the world is in flames, Russia invaded Ukraine, gas and  petrol prices are through the roof and Germany fears the winter,” wrote Der Spiegel magazine’s Alexander Osang, a longtime Merkel confidant.

“Angela Merkel went from role model to culprit, from crisis-manager to crisis-causer.”

Invitation to Bucha

Germany’s first female chancellor has been accused of placating Russian President Vladimir Putin in the name of realpolitik, while deepening Germany’s energy dependence on Moscow — not least by backing the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project even after Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea.

READ ALSO: Merkel says no regrets over Germany’s Russia gas deals

Hedwig Richter, modern history professor at Munich’s Bundeswehr University, said Merkel‘s loss of standing had been “exceptional”, representing a generation of political failings.

“Amorality is not the same thing as realpolitik,” Richter told AFP.

“The governments of the last 16 years thought it was realistic to place values such as human rights and climate protection last in politics. But now reality is striking back.”

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has laid the blame at Merkel‘s feet, in particular for a decision at a 2008 NATO summit in Bucharest not to admit his country to the alliance.

In April, he offered her a barbed invitation to Bucha, the site of an alleged massacre of Ukrainian civilians, “to see what the policy of concessions to Russia has led to in 14 years”.

Looming energy shortages due to Russian retaliation for Western sanctions have also soured the mood against Merkel at home.

In the public debate, “Merkel was tied up with this war and certainly to blame for the missing gas”, said Nico Fried, who covered Merkel during all four of her terms, in Stern magazine.

“The question is what remains of Merkel after 16 years, whether her historical portrait is already fading before it was even really framed.”

‘Horribly neglected’

Just 23 percent of Germans would want Merkel back in power, according to a Civey institute poll in late November.

READ ALSO: ANALYSIS: Are Germans questioning Merkel’s legacy?

In this file photo taken on November 10, 2021 then outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel and then German Finance Minister and Vice-Chancellor Olaf Scholz attend a press conference to present the annual report of the German Council of Economic Experts (Wirtschaftsweise) in Berlin. (Photo by Kay Nietfeld / POOL / AFP)

Richter said Merkel had “great achievements” including allowing in more  than one million asylum seekers and standing as a beacon of “decency” and  “democratic duty” when strongmen like Putin and Donald Trump were on the march.

But she said two key miscalculations would cast a long shadow.

“Firstly, the inability of the (German) republic to defend itself. And because this is closely linked to the fossil-fuel dependence on Russia, it threw a spotlight on destruction of the planet,” she said.

“The Merkel governments horribly neglected both these issues.”

Merkel, 68, has mounted a tentative counter-offensive, arguing that she acted in good conscience given the facts on the ground at the time.

She said she tried to use Nord Stream 2 as a bargaining chip to ensure Putin respected the 2015 Minsk accords aimed at stopping the fighting in Ukraine.

Merkel told Fried she pledged to US President Joe Biden last year that if Russia invaded Ukraine, the pipeline deal would be scrapped — a threat her successor Olaf Scholz made good on days before the war began.

Osang noted the irony that “Putin of all people, whom she has known so well and long, with all his tricks, lies, bragging” had muddied her reputation.

One of Merkel‘s lessons from the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 that it was “economic, more than democratic, deprivation” that led to the communist system’s collapse.

Osang said this had coloured her approach to trade with China and energy deals with Russia.

She said Scholz’s billions in spending to help Germans facing high gas prices were now justified.

“Not everyone is in a position to freeze for Ukraine,” she said.

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