Merkel Plays Down Rift With Macron to Defend European Unity

(Bloomberg) -- Angela Merkel recognized her differences with French President Emmanuel Macron, but insisted their disagreements are part and parcel of a productive relationship.

The German chancellor said that she usually manages to find a “middle ground” with Macron even if they don’t always see eye-to-eye.

“Certainly we grapple with one another,” Merkel told the daily Sueddeutsche Zeitung in an interview published late Wednesday. “There are differences in mentality between us as well as differences in how we perceive our roles.”

After striking up an enthusiastic rapport with the French leader 23 years her junior after his shock election in 2017, Merkel’s relationship with Macron has appeared to cool over the past year as his repeated calls for closer EU integration have been ignored by Germany.

Merkel said there has been no recent deterioration, though she did admit that the timing of his election victory had been unfortunate. Merkel’s CDU suffered an unexpectedly poor result in the German election a few months after Macron came to power. As a result, she needed six months to form a government and emerged with little power to force through a grand bargain with France.

Third Way

Responding to Merkel’s comments, Macron said Wednesday evening that their relationship was neither a standoff, nor a “sterile entente” in which differences were never aired.

“I believe in a third way, which is where we talk and we seek a compromise through productive confrontation,” Macron told reporters in Paris. “That’s how we advance.”

Germany’s Economy Minister Peter Altmaier, a close Merkel ally, echoed those sentiments.

“There have always been diverging ideas, but what counts and has always counted is the ability to overcome problems,” he said in an interview with France’s RTL radio on Thursday. “It’s always the Franco-German couple that presents compromises.”

History Lesson

Merkel has made a string of public appearances ahead of the May 26 European election, even if she’s shied away from the campaign trail since ceding her position as Christian Democratic Union party leader.

In the newspaper interview, the German leader pushed back on the accusation that she divided Europe over the refugee crisis and Greek bailout, saying her agenda in both cases had to be measured against what the “opposite” policy would have achieved. Indeed, in a speech to several hundred people in the southern German town of Ravensburg, the chancellor lauded European unity over the Iran nuclear accord -- a response, she signaled, to the U.S.’s hard line.

“I’m very proud of the fact that there is such unity in Europe in this case,” Merkel said.

Germany and France were often at odds as the two confront differences over Brexit, weapons exports and climate policy, Merkel told Sueddeutsche Zeitung. She cited the nations’ histories and structural differences in their high offices. Germany and France stand together in the broader scheme, she said.

Still, Merkel, who grew up in communist East Germany couldn’t resist a crack a Macron’s assertion that the EU has never faced greater danger than it does now.

“I find it difficult to compare Europe’s current situation with the dangers of earlier decades,” Merkel said.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.