The Paris-Berlin axis has become dysfunctional at the worst time

Dr Oliver Hartwich
5 March, 2024

All eyes are on Europe as the Russian onslaught continues, Ukraine runs out of ammunition, and America’s upcoming election induces paralysis.

Will the continent stand up to the challenge? Will it be able to make up for America’s dithering? Will it help Ukraine defend itself?

Considering the events of the past fortnight, the answer to all three questions is a resounding no. More than ever, Europe appears disunited, leaderless and frankly embarrassing.

This is largely the fault of Olaf Scholz and Emmanuel Macron, although they have little else in common.

Former German Chancellors and French Presidents often formed powerful alliances and sometimes friendships. Think of Konrad Adenauer and Charles de Gaulle after World War II – or Helmut Kohl and François Mitterrand at the time of Germany’s unification.

Scholz and Macron, meanwhile, no longer have a working relationship. They dislike each other to the point that Macron publicly mocked Scholz this week. How did it come to this?

Going back to the beginning of the Ukraine war, now two years ago, it looked different. Putin’s aggression had pushed Western European nations closer together. They were all shocked and earnestly vowed to work together so Ukraine could fight back the Russian invaders.

This initial alliance has since fallen apart, and it has much to do with diverging political and military cultures.

Of all countries, the United States has so far committed the most to Ukraine: more than US$75 billion in total. This is followed by Germany which has provided US$24 billion and the UK on US$17 billion.

France, on the other hand, only provided US$2 billion in bilateral aid. And the other two large EU members, Italy and Spain, did not even reach that number.

From Germany’s perspective, that lack of engagement from other large European nations has been disappointing. Perhaps even more so because despite Germany’s larger share in the international support for Ukraine, it was Berlin which received most of the criticism for its repeated dithering on delivering weapons systems.

France’s view, meanwhile, was different. Paris never understood why Germany took so long to decide on what it was prepared to deliver to Ukraine. Indeed, these matters have been frustratingly complicated, not least the time it took Berlin to agree on sending its Leopard tanks. That only happened once Scholz managed to get Biden to commit to delivering US tanks as well.

In this way, Berlin and Paris did not see eye-to-eye over the past two years of war and probably frustrated one another in equal measure.

In addition, Scholz and Macron could not be more different personally. In comparison to the Chancellor, who comes across as a cautious bureaucrat, the President offers a more intellectual and rhetorical approach to politics.

Last week, the two politicians finally collided in the open – and in a way that no German Chancellor and French President have ever clashed before. The final trigger was the Taurus, a German cruise missile system high on the Ukrainian government’s wish list.

Taurus’ features make it an ideal addition to the Ukrainian military. With a range of more than 500 kilometres, Taurus can hit targets with extreme precision while remaining undetected by enemy radar.

It was precisely these features that made Scholz hesitant to deliver it to Ukraine. If programmed correctly, Taurus could blow through the Kremlin’s walls and detonate right above Putin’s desk.

Now, as with all previous weapons deliveries, Ukraine had already given assurances not to hit targets inside Russia. Regardless, on Monday last week, Scholz ruled out providing Taurus to Kyiv.

Scholz argued that German soldiers would need to assist Ukraine in programming coordinates for the Taurus system. Germany would become a party to the Ukraine war as a result, according to Scholz. He then also noted that France and the United Kingdom had already delivered such weapons systems to Ukraine.

It was a diplomatic bombshell on multiple levels. To reveal publicly that London and Paris were providing this kind of assistance to Ukraine would have been irresponsible even if his intelligence had told him so. Furthermore, it would mean that France and the UK were at war with Russia according to his own definition. Using Scholz’s argument, Putin could attack either. No wonder Scholz’ account was quickly denied by London and Paris.

From everything we know, Scholz’ claim that Taurus requires German soldiers appears to be false. Several members of his own coalition denounced the Chancellor’s statement in public, and German media cited unnamed cabinet ministers admitting it was untrue.

Scholz’ behaviour was most likely due to his distrust of the Ukrainian government’s assurances not to use Taurus against targets inside Russia. But damaged his relationships within his coalition, with France and Britain, and crucially, with Ukraine.

All that would have been bad enough already, but now it was Macron’s turn to make matters worse. Right after Scholz’s Taurus statement, Macron hosted a meeting in Paris with about two dozen heads of government, including Scholz. Preventing a Ukrainian defeat was the goal of this summit.

Reportedly, Macron suggested sending international ground troops at the meeting – which Scholz brusquely refused to consider. No wonder, given Scholz would not even deliver cruise missiles.

Nevertheless, in the concluding media conference, Macron then openly speculated about sending French troops to Ukraine – while Scholz was already back at his Paris hotel.

Not content with just presenting a proposal at odds with Germany’s position, Macron then gleefully rubbed it in: “Many of the people who say ‘never, never’ today were the same people who said ‘never, never tanks, never, never planes, never, never long-range missiles, never, never this’ two years ago,” Macron said pointedly.

And just in case the message was not received, Macron added: “I remind you that two years ago, many around this table said: ‘We will offer sleeping bags and helmets.’” That was a reference to Germany originally only offering non-lethal aid like helmets and sleeping bags to Ukraine in the early stages of the war.

And just like that, Scholz and Macron had run their relationship into the ground, demonstrating to the whole world just how dysfunctional the former Paris-Berlin axis has become.

The only winner in all of this was Vladimir Putin. He probably could not believe the amateurish conduct of Western politicians during Europe's most trying times since World War II.

To read the article on the Newsroom website, click here.

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