Franco-German tension complicates race for EU’s top jobs

Strained relations between Berlin and Paris make it hard to predict who will end up running the commission and ECB

Mallet in Paris and Guy Chazan in Berlin

Europe is picking a new batch of EU presidents and there is nothing like the symbols of a coronation for France and Germany to show the world how close their relationship is — and who exactly is on top.

When General Charles De Gaulle invited Konrad Adenauer for a “mass for peace” in 1962 it was held in Reims Cathedral, where French kings had been crowned since the sixth century. The event was a historic reconciliation after three catastrophic wars, but De Gaulle nevertheless chose a chair that was noticeably taller than the German chancellor’s.

Six decades on, with Berlin’s economic power now in the ascendant, Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron renewed the vows of the Franco-German relationship in January, signing the Aachen treaty in a hall where Holy Roman Emperors once held coronation banquets.

German chancellor Konrad Adenauer (left) and French President Charles De Gaulle attend mass at Reims cathedral on July 5 1962 © AFP

But instead of a backdrop of vaulted medieval ceilings, fit for the ambition of Mr Macron, the German hosts put the leaders in front of a white panel, smattered with functional black lettering. “It said it all,” says one senior official present at the ceremony. Ms Merkel, now on her fourth French president, is not one for vaulting ambition.

The episode is a window on an increasingly lopsided political double act that, along with the rest of the EU’s leadership, is seized by transition. Brussels is in the throes of a succession battle, and the Franco-German relationship, once the guiding force for the European project, is showing the strain.

At a Brussels summit next week, the EU is supposed to start nominating new presidents for its main institutions — the European Commission, European Council, European Central Bank and European Parliament. It is a chance for the two senior partners to shape the outcome. Yet rather than rush to Berlin to seal a deal, Mr Macron is openly challenging the veteran chancellor and her centre-right allies in the European People’s party.

Nominally in his sights is Manfred Weber, the lead candidate for the EPP and Ms Merkel’s official choice for the Commission. But Mr Macron’s aim is broader: to “rebalance Europe” through alliances with progressives and liberals to end what senior French officials call the “hegemonic habits” of the Berlin-dominated EPP. France’s disrupter-in-chief is turning his energy to the political networks that underpinned two decades of German dominance in Brussels.