Germany and France steal the show — again
Germany’s coalition government can’t stop bickering. France is a country in revolt. And the EU’s two biggest countries are bringing their baggage to Brussels.
EU leaders had hoped to focus on the economy and foreign affairs when they gather in Brussels on Thursday for a two-day summit. But Germany and France have already hijacked the occasion.
Berlin is mounting a last-minute attempt to stop an already-settled plan — phasing out traditional, combustion engine cars by 2035. And Paris is miffed that the EU omitted the nuclear industry from a legislative package meant to keep clean tech investors in Europe and away from the U.S. and its alluring subsidies.
Then there are France’s domestic woes. The country will grind to a halt on Thursday as trade unions call for workers to down their tools and protest President Emmanuel Macron’s deeply unpopular push to raise the retirement age. Public transport, schools, waste collection and train services are expected to be disrupted.
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Germany has its own problems at home. The country’s three-party government is regularly at odds, prompting it to reverse course and drag out decisions, leaving heads spinning in Brussels.
“The brouhaha surrounding the phasing out of internal combustion vehicles is becoming increasingly absurd and now threatens to overshadow the EU summit,” said Terry Reintke, a German European Parliament member who co-chairs the Greens‘ group.
Put simply: The backdrop has been set.
The (un)official agenda
EU leaders, of course, will still plow through the official agenda, which includes approval of a deal to supply Ukraine with 1 million rounds of ammunition. But with those negotiations prebaked, all eyes will instead be on how much of a fuss Germany and France choose to make over their pet issues.
Several diplomats involved in preparations for the summit said both topics — the car emissions rules and whether nuclear energy counts as “clean” — will likely come up during the meeting itself, given the summit’s broader theme is the European economy and its competitiveness.
Leaders will also talk trade on Thursday, with Germany likely to advocate for the so-called Mercosur deal with South America — another bone of contention with France, which is suspicious of the proposed deal.
The Elysée confirmed during a Wednesday briefing with reporters that Macron will at least make a stand on the nuclear issue.
Macron plans to tell his fellow leaders that they need to engage in a “strategic discussion” about nuclear power, said an Elysée official, who was only authorized to speak anonymously. “The president is going to do a sit-rep on nuclear power and its place in our decarbonization efforts.”
The official argued nuclear power had been treated in an “uneven way” in recent EU proposals, including the legislative package dubbed the Net Zero Industry Act — designed in response to the U.S. Inflation Reduction Act, which earmarked billions in green subsidies for businesses.
The official insisted France is “not alone” in asking for “less discrimination against nuclear.”
“We have to be coherent,” he said. “We can’t say yes to nuclear on Monday, no on Tuesday and maybe on Wednesday.”
But already, there are signs Macron will face headwinds. Germany, which wields considerable power in Brussels, opposes classifying nuclear energy as “green.” It’s also a particular bugbear for the German Greens, which are part of the country’s ruling coalition.
Luxembourg’s Prime Minister Xavier Bettel, often seen as a Macron ally, similarly warned in an interview with POLITICO on Wednesday that there should not be a “European label” on nuclear energy.
“We believe that nuclear is neither sustainable, nor safe, nor fast,” he said. “Everyone can do what they want. But for me, the European label on nuclear energy — it would be in fact wrong to call it a green energy, or safe, or renewable.”
Berlin pines for e-fuels
For Germany, the goal is to obtain a carve-out that would allow them to keep selling combustion engine cars beyond 2035 — as long as they run on e-fuels, a synthetic alternative to fossil fuels.
Currently, Germany’s transport ministry is locked in negotiations with the European Commission, the EU’s executive, to find an e-fuels workaround.
The push has garnered support from Italy, the Czech Republic, Poland and Bulgaria, though most of the bloc is fuming that Germany has mounted an 11th-hour attempt to change rules that had already been settled.
German officials this week acknowledged that the issue may spill over into the summit.
“The possibility that [e-fuels] will be discussed on the sidelines [of the summit] cannot be excluded,” a senior German official told reporters in Berlin.
Some have raised the possibility that Germany and France may be plotting a quid pro quo to be hashed out on those “sidelines.” The theory goes that France would agree to Germany’s e-fuel push, in exchange for the EU bolstering nuclear power’s role in the Net Zero Industry Act and other climate-related legislation.
A bilateral meeting between Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz is even scheduled on the summit’s fringes — possibly for Friday morning.
Yet officials played down the possibility of such a deal coming together.
Instead, Commission officials are mulling how far they can go in offering Berlin limited legal wriggle room to sell a small number of e-fuel-powered vehicles beyond 2035, most likely just luxury vehicles.
Leaders will, however, give some signal about how they’re feeling on the nuclear energy issue. During the summit, they’re scheduled to deliver an initial verdict on the Net Zero Industry Act as part of a discussion over how the EU is responding to the Inflation Reduction Act.
Even if Macron gets exactly what he wants in Brussels, though, come Friday, it’s back to howls of protest and piles of trash in France.