Macron Visit to Test Franco-German Relationship: What to Watch

(Bloomberg) -- French President Emmanuel Macron heads to Germany for a three-day state visit on Sunday that will test the ability of the European Union’s core couple to set the bloc’s agenda just two weeks before potentially bruising elections.

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Macron’s difficult relationship with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has been at the center of the EU’s struggles to find unity on issues ranging from military aid to Ukraine, deepening capital markets, and trade with China. At home, both leaders face a surge in the far right.

The visit to Berlin, Dresden and Muenster is the first such trip by a French president since Jacques Chirac almost a quarter-century ago and coincides with the 75th anniversary of the German constitution and the birth of the Federal Republic.

“It’d be a good signal to see some concrete cooperation coming out of the visit,” said Eileen Keller, a senior researcher at the Deutsch-Französisches Institut in Ludwigsburg. “I’m not expecting much progress before the EU elections but consultations are happening behind the scenes — and the challenges are massive.”

The state visit, officially hosted by German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, was postponed last summer due to riots in France following the police shooting of a 17-year-old boy. This time, Macron will arrive in Berlin with his wife Brigitte after a trip to New Caledonia aimed at quelling unrest over proposed constitutional reform in the French territory — an archipelago in the Pacific Ocean.

Here are some of the main issues to watch:

Rise of the Far Right

Macron will give a speech on Monday about the future of Europe in front of the iconic Frauenkirche in Dresden, a church that was destroyed by Allied bombs toward the end of World War Two and has since been rebuilt.

Read More: Why Eyes Are on the Far Right in European Elections: QuickTake

During celebrations to mark the anniversary of the German constitution, which was designed to prevent the return of Nazism, Macron will address the threat posed by a strong far-right presence in the European Parliament.

The far-right National Rally party of his nemesis, Marine Le Pen, is on course to trounce his group in the June vote, according to polls. The Alternative for Germany had also moved ahead of Scholz’s Social Democrats, though the latest monthly poll by Allensbach for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung on Friday showed it has lost ground after a series of controversies. The AfD is still expected to make gains in elections in the eastern states of Brandenburg, Thuringia and Saxony this year.

European Defense

France and Germany have long been at odds over European defense, amid suspicions that Macron’s repeated call for “strategic autonomy” is a bid to boost French companies and might alienate the US, which provides a nuclear security umbrella for Europe.

Macron is under pressure to deliver on aid to Ukraine since leaving the door open to sending ground troops earlier this year. That idea was quickly and publicly dismissed by Scholz. Macron made a dig at Germany’s initial response to Russia’s invasion by citing proposals to send “sleeping bags and helmets.” The remark did not sit well with Berlin, which is the second-biggest supplier of aid to Kyiv after the US, according to the Kiel Institute.

Paris has so far refrained from supporting the German-led European Sky Shield, an anti-missile program that includes air defense systems from non-European countries. But the two leaders may be ready to move past their disagreements after Macron hinted at a European anti-missile shield last month. They will also discuss joint fighter jet and main battle tank projects.

EU Competitiveness

Scholz’s coalition partners, particularly his Free Democrat finance minister, have resisted Macron’s push for a significantly larger common EU budget funded by joint borrowing underwritten by Berlin. In 2020, Macron struck a deal with Angela Merkel on joint debt to fund Covid-related expenses. He will have a chance to reminisce about this achievement at Sunday evening’s state banquet, to which the former chancellor is invited.

While Scholz has shown openness to discussing Macron’s current push for capital markets integration, it remains uncertain if the two leaders will find common ground. The neighbors have also clashed over the role of nuclear power, which dominates France’s energy mix, in the climate transition. And France has long been critical of Germany’s over-reliance on Russian fossil fuels.

The French and German governments will hold a joint cabinet meeting on Tuesday at Schloss Meseberg, north of Berlin. Ahead of this, their economy ministers have signed a declaration calling for the EU to strengthen its industry, competitiveness and growth in the push for climate neutrality.

Top EU Jobs

EU leaders will hash out who gets the top jobs in the bloc’s institutions for the next five years at a summit after the elections, and the views of Macron and Scholz will be key.

The French leader was instrumental in making Ursula von der Leyen the surprise head of the European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, last time around following a deal with Merkel. While the incumbent is the front-runner for another term, Macron has explored alternative candidates such as former European Central Bank head Mario Draghi.

The jobs also include the heads of the European Council, the parliament and the foreign policy service, and final appointments are expected in September. These roles are crucial for adopting key EU legislation, such as the Green Deal.

--With assistance from Arne Delfs.

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