The sight of French President Emmanuel Macron and his cabinet drinking beers on a boat with their German counterparts in Hamburg this week will project an image of the enduring Franco-German friendship.
But the informal team-building exercise, a German government tradition called “Klausur”, belies a power struggle between the European Union’s two biggest powers and its impact on a raft of EU projects.
From joint defence programmes to nuclear energy or relations with China, Paris and Berlin are at odds over a growing number of issues.
In an August speech Macron made his frustration public, calling Germany’s position on nuclear energy “a historic mistake”.
France is one of the most nuclear-powered countries in the world, typically producing over 70% of its electricity with its fleet of reactors.
The rising tension between the capitals reveals not just a spat on technical matters but a break in trust between two governments fighting for major economic interests and different visions of the EU’s future.
“I have the impression the governments do not speak with one another about important topics and then when they do, only through the media and sometimes through indiscretions,” said Detlef Seif, a leading German Christian Democratic Union lawmaker on EU affairs.
That lack of communication is what prompted Berlin to suggest the more informal meeting this week, a French official said.
The hardest-fought battle is over EU electricity reform.
French officials are aggrieved by what they describe as a German attempt to sabotage the competitiveness of France’s nuclear industry, whose cheap electricity could give them a competitive edge while Germany struggles with high gas prices.
“The starting point for all these disputes is Germany’s anti-nuclear policy, which extends beyond its borders,” said Marc-Antoine Eyl-Mazzega, head of Paris-based IFRI think-tank’s energy centre.
Germany decided to phase out nuclear energy after Japan’s Fukushima disaster in 2011, closing its last reactors in April.
But with Germany’s access to cheap Russian gas cut off following the invasion of Ukraine, its industry is struggling with soaring electricity costs. BASF, a bellwether of German industry, is cutting jobs in Europe and investing in China instead.
“They shot themselves in the foot, and now they want to shoot in ours to get even,” one French official told Reuters on condition of anonymity.
Germany and some other EU members are pushing for stricter rules on state-backed support of power prices. Berlin officials fear Paris will offer state-backed fixed-price contracts for nuclear power to its national energy champion EDF and spend the revenue this raises on supporting French industries.
There is also concern in Germany that France could lure companies across the Rhine river with cheaper energy, an executive from a company with knowledge of the Franco-German negotiations said.
It is unclear if France and Germany can hash out a deal in Hamburg ahead of a crucial EU energy meeting on Oct. 17, but analysts are doubtful.
“France does not look like it is in the mood for compromise anymore,” Wolfgang Munchau wrote in the EuroIntelligence newsletter.
That hasn’t escaped the notice of other European officials.
One EU diplomat told Reuters the fracturing relationship will make it harder for the bloc to agree other big decisions such as the future shape of support for Ukraine.
CHEMISTRY AND VISION
Beyond a lack of chemistry between the French president and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, the antagonism comes from two different visions of the world.
Macron’s concept of “strategic autonomy”, which calls for Europe not to rely on outside powers in sectors which could give them political leverage, is rubbing against Germany’s historical reliance on the American military umbrella.
Berlin’s decision to launch the “European Sky Shield” air-defence system with U.S. and Israeli hardware, and not a Franco-Italian one, prompted Paris to call off a joint Franco-German meeting last year.
Germany has also long pushed for the concept of “Wandel durch Handel”, or “Change through Trade”, a belief that trade between countries could not only help prevent conflict, but also support democracy in hitherto autocratic regimes.
Although the concept was criticised for having failed with Russia, German officials believe trade ties with a country like China could prevent conflict. France favours a more assertive approach.
That was apparent when Brussels launched a probe into Chinese electric vehicles, which the French encouraged, but for which Germany has reservations, officials say.
“Where the Germans are risk averse, due to their extensive investments in China, the French are willing to live with a world where retaliation from Beijing is a growing possibility,” Noah Barkin, an analyst for GMF Asia said in a note.