Franco-German tensions over carbon neutral plans loom over EU summit
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A budding feud between France and Germany, fueled by differences over nuclear power and combustion engines, threatened to spill over to a gathering of 27 European Union leaders on Thursday.
The strains existing between the of the European Union two biggest players after Berlin upset some of its partners by blocking – at the last minute – a landmark deal for ban new fossil fuel car sales from 2035.
The ban is key to Brussels’ ambitious plan to become a “climate neutral” economy by 2050, with net zero greenhouse gas emissions.
In an unprecedented move this month, Germany stepped in after the car ban had already been approved through the EU legislative process. He demanded that Brussels provide assurances that the law would allow the sale of new cars fitted with combustion engines running on synthetic fuels.
While the last-minute blockage frustrated many European capitals, Paris had already angered Berlin by insisting on giving nuclear power a prominent role in European plans to produce more green technology in Europe.
Paris and Berlin have traditionally worked together to advance the EU agenda.
But the split hangs over the summit as leaders meet to discuss EU support for Ukraine and how to boost economic competitiveness in the face of threats from US and Chinese subsidies.
The European Commission, the executive arm of the EU, has held talks with the German Transport Ministry to resolve the dispute over the cars.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz told reporters ahead of the summit that Germany’s talks with the commission were “on the right track”.
“It’s now just about finding the right way to implement that promise,” Scholz said.
The home affair reaches the EU
Although no agreement has yet been reached, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said he hoped the issue would be resolved “in the next few days”.
Some leaders have criticized Germany’s eleventh-hour decision to tighten the brakes on a proposal that had already cleared all hurdles in the traditional EU legislative process.
“The whole architecture of decision-making would crumble if we all did this,” Latvian Prime Minister Arturs Krisjanis Karins said.
Germany, which has one of the world’s biggest car manufacturing industries, blocked the deal signed last year in a move seen as a product of domestic politics.
Scholz leads a coalition made up of his Social Democrats and his Green and Liberal rivals.
“It is above all a German affair and an internal debate in German politics that has reached Europe,” complained a senior EU diplomat.
The synthetic fuels for which Germany wants an exemption are still under development, produced from low-carbon electricity. The technology is unproven, but German automakers hope it will lead to the widespread use of combustion engines.
If Germany led the revolt against the ban on combustion engines, it is not alone. It has formed a small alliance with countries like Italy, another major automaker, and Eastern European states like Poland and Hungary.
France did not hesitate to point the finger at Germany for criticism.
Earlier this month, French Transport Minister Clément Beaune accused his German counterpart of leading “a revolt” against the ban on new cars with petrol or diesel engines.
In this tense context, French President Emmanuel Macron will meet Scholz one-on-one on Friday.
Another bone of contention they will have to discuss is France’s push for EU recognition which nuclear power has a role to play in Europe’s green future.
Nuclear is dividing the EU, with countries like Austria and Luxembourg strongly against it while its supporters include the Czech Republic and Poland.
“It’s not safe, it’s not fast, it’s not cheap and it’s not climate-friendly. With European flags on it, it would be a scam,” said the Prime Minister of Luxembourg Xavier Bettel upon his arrival.
On March 16, the European Commission launched new plans to boost the production of clean technologies by ensuring that permits are issued faster and that projects have better access to finance.
France, a nuclear power, wanted atomic energy to be included in the list, but failed to achieve this goal.
Nuclear was included in the announced proposals, however, but it only applies to fourth-generation reactors that do not yet exist, meaning that atomic energy would gain little of the benefits offered.
Macron “will focus on the role of nuclear in decarbonisation” at the leaders’ meeting, a French government source said.
Another senior EU diplomat was less optimistic about the outcome of the summit, given the distance between capitals.
“We don’t expect a dramatic breakthrough on any specific issue,” the diplomat said.