France and Germany combined account for 45% of EU GDP and 40% of energy consumption. No wonder they are the most influential EU members. But the Russia-induced energy crisis has forced both Paris and Berlin to expose and admit the differences in their national energy strategies, and that has made a search for a unified voice for Europe’s ambitious climate targets much harder to achieve, explain Camille Lafrance and Benjamin Wehrmann at CLEW. Though the destination is clear – decarbonisation and energy security – the pathway is not. So the current energy crisis and the disputes it has created should be taken as an opportunity to grapple with and resolve the big issues now. The authors take a thorough look at the differences between France and Germany, interviewing experts on the way, and cover key issues such as nuclear, renewables, fossil fuels, hydrogen, cooperation and coordination, power interconnections, reforming the EU power market, jobs, increased competition from the U.S., and more. And the authors note that a basic EU principle that energy policy exclusively rests within the competence of national governments may be out of date, and should make way for EU-level solutions.
When Emmanuel Macron makes the first official state visit of a French president to Germany in almost 25 years (originally scheduled for 3 July but now postponed), a long list of unsorted energy and climate challenges casts a shadow that reaches back to the European Union’s origins as a project based on a common line on energy policy and industrial stability after the Second World War. Sixty years after signing their seminal Elysée Treaty, which formally ended decades of rivalry and opened an unparalleled political partnership between the neighbours, France and Germany find themselves at the forefront of a dual crisis that affects these core tenets of the EU: safeguarding energy supply after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine while also getting ahead with the unremittingly urgent task of decarbonising its economy – which is supposed to have reached net-zero by 2050, about the time the next state visit is due at the current rhythm.
France + Germany: 45% of EU GDP, 40% of energy consumption
Macron has been visiting Germany on numerous working visits during his tenure and meets with German chancellor Olaf Scholz regularly to talk politics between the bloc’s two most populous countries, who together account for roughly 45 percent of its GDP and nearly 40 percent of energy consumption.
The official state visit one year ahead of the 2024 European elections is meant to send a message that the ‘Franco-German engine’ of European integration that is based on conflict resolution and sharing competences is still intact – after a calamitous year dominated by Russia’s war but also by glaring gaps in the two core member states’ energy strategies. The French president’s visit also includes a meeting with young people from France, Germany and Ukraine who work on sustainability concepts, a nod the future challenges lying ahead and which both countries want to approach by “looking out at the world together,” as Germany’s presidential office put it.
A lack of common vision between Paris in the preceding months has come with serious implications for the EU’s climate ambitions. At the height of Europe’s energy crisis, the engine showed clear signs of malfunction, as Paris and Berlin allowed themselves to engage in a noisy quarrel over use for nuclear power, the role of gas in the energy transition or the future of combustion engines.
All these differences point at crucial decisions the EU has to take with respect to the funding of its energy plans, supply security aspects as well as wider trade and industrial policy frameworks. The dispute thus exposed deeper risks in the bloc’s coherence regarding the aim to achieve climate neutrality, said Sven Rösner, head of the Franco-German Office for the Energy Transition. “There’s a risk that the gulf on these matters weakens the pair’s ability to act as the progressive force in European climate action that it has been in the past,” the head of the bilateral government platform for energy policy coordination said.
National control of energy policy no longer offers viable solutions
Encouragingly, the crisis also showed European solidarity to work in practice: French help was instrumental in getting Germany out of its self-dug Russian gas trap. And electricity imports from German coal plants and renewables helped to keep the lights on in France when half of its nuclear reactor fleet was taken offline for maintenance or due to a lack of cooling water that also cut hydropower output. “Unfortunately, this encouraging sign has been buried by disagreements,” often centred around national energy ‘sovereignty,’ Rösner said.
Indeed, a basic principle for the EU so far has been that energy policy exclusively rests within the competence of national governments. Asked about the effects of the spat on climate policy progress during the crisis, the EU Commission made clear it will not “comment on the bilateral relationship between two of our member states.” But applying national perspectives no longer offers a viable solution, French-German policy mediator Rösner said. “Sovereignty today is only achievable at the European level – and there will be no sovereignty without solidarity.”
This conclusion resonates with many French and German citizens: in a bi-national survey by the German Heinrich-Böll-Foundation and the French Ecologic Policy Foundation released in early 2023, more than 80 percent of respondents in both countries said a functioning Franco-German engine remains essential. And cooperation on energy overwhelmingly was named the most important job for the two governments, followed by security policy, trade and climate action.
Yet, as of mid-2023, energy cooperation appears to be a far cry from these popular wishes, as France took the lead in a ‘nuclear alliance’ of countries aiming to ingrain non-renewable nuclear energy in the bloc’s renewable energy plans, an outcome Germany vehemently opposed. A deal on intermediate renewable power goals that included nuclear power provisions allowed EU states to move on also this time. The irritation it left became visible when Paris was temporarily shunned by a ‘Friends of Renewables’ group meeting ahead of the EU energy council where it was agreed.
While France eventually did join the pro-renewables meeting, “the way it projected its interests into EU policies was emblematic of a certain bluntness it shared with Berlin throughout the energy crisis that did little to solidify European cohesion,” said Kenny Kremer, who oversees Franco-German relations at the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP). “Last-minute interventions based on national interests have been perceived as egoistic and self-centred by many other EU states,” Kremer argued.
As France snubbed at others with its insistence on nuclear energy, Germany’s national solo effort became visible in its scarcely coordinated 200 billion-euro energy crisis response. More broadly, Germany’s position on energy often came across as particularly selfish, with Berlin “claiming the moral high ground on environmental policies while burning a lot of coal and refusing to let go of combustion engines,” Kremer said.
Finger-pointing misses the point: agreeing on Europe’s future energy system
The fact that France in 2022 had a higher share of renewables in its energy consumption than Germany fits this narrative. However, a closer inspection reveals that wind and solar power, widely agreed to be the workhorses for decarbonising the global power supply, are developed much faster in Germany than in France, whose renewable energy credentials rests on a sizeable capacity of bioenergy and hydropower that cannot easily be expanded further. And while France incidentally boasts the largest land area and abundant production potential for solar and wind power, it was the only country in the EU to miss its 2020 renewables target, only catching up with two years of delay.
However, pointing fingers and measuring annual expansion levels or current shares in the energy mix misses the point of coming to a deeper agreement about the path France and Germany want to see Europe take towards its goal of achieving climate neutrality and also greater energy sovereignty, as both Macron and Scholz repeatedly vowed. The common objectives outlined in the European Green Deal compel all member states to improve coordination – and France and Germany are positioned to spearhead this effort by showing that seemingly irreconcilable approaches can be brought into alignment. The EU policy think tank Jacques Delors Centre Berlin, for example, cites the need to step up coordination on avoiding excess fossil infrastructure investments in the REPowerEU crisis response, reforming the EU power market and push interconnections as key steps for the Green Deal to succeed.
Crucially, the think tank also cited the need for greater joint efforts to make Europe a production location for clean technology – a task that German economy minister Robert Habeck and his French colleague Bruno LeMaire addressed in a Franco-German response to the industrial policy challenge posed by the green subsidy programme Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) in the U.S. widely hailed successful.
The coordinated reaction to the IRA was preceded by a joint declaration in which both ministers acknowledged that their countries “have a key role to play in this unprecedented context” to break up Europe’s spiral of high energy prices, rising inflation and falling competitiveness. The declaration marked “the first step of a new Franco-German commitment line,” they promised. However, it was only achieved after a vexed debate about a new hydrogen-ready gas pipeline connection from Spain to northern Europe, which France deemed unnecessary because it plans to use its own LNG import infrastructure and wants to produce hydrogen with nuclear power. While climate neutrality gives the Franco-German engine a destination where to take the EU, it appears there are two steering wheels installed that complicate this task.
EU-wide growth of renewables drives growing interconnection
National reservations dominate headlines about Franco-German energy relations despite the fact that there is wide agreement among them on the vast majority of tasks ahead – and despite the fact that the concept of national electricity systems is gradually fading in Europe, as more and more electrons cross borders. Since the liberalisation of power markets in the 1990s, interconnections between national energy markets have intensified greatly across Europe and today put Germany and France at the centre of the world’s largest integrated electricity system, the Continental European Synchronous Area (CESA), in which the pair also boast the largest generation capacities.
“We need each other,” said Ines Bouacida, energy researcher at the French think tank Institute for Sustainable Development and International Relations (IDDRI). “To balance the networks, to ensure security of supply, we are interconnected with our neighbours,” she explained. The fast-growing share of renewable energy sources projected by the EU will only increase this mutual reliance, driven by shifting weather conditions in Europe that let national power generation fluctuate. But it also generally provides that high outputs are generated somewhere in the region. “Interconnections ensure that everyone gets the electricity they need,” she stressed, even though the current level of integration is far from optimising fast intercontinental transfers or avoid curtailment because local grids have nowhere to redirect excess power.
Improving the joint exploitation of electricity sources across Europe would unequivocally benefit France, Macron said in late 2022. Increasing the number of interconnectors would also lead to a more equal and lower price level for power between both states, Germany’s economy ministry underlined after the winter 2022/2023. The more connections are available, the better supply and demand can be balanced across the border and bridge relative generation costs – including those for fossil-based power generation and CO2 emissions allowances. Conversely, underdeveloped coordination means EU countries compete for foreign supplies, rather than maximising domestic ones.
Today’s differences stem from the response to the 1970s energy crisis
Upholding the conundrum exposed by the current crisis would not be the first time that a shock to the energy architecture leads France and Germany astray from their shared wisdom that cooperation tops national supremacy. Today’s differences in energy architecture on both sides of the Rhine river that forms the border between the two countries in fact are steeped in diverging responses to another energy crisis, the oil price shock of the 1970s.
Nuclear energy initially had been a core tenet of European integration and both countries banked equally on the technology in the post-war ‘economic miracle’ decades. However, faced with the oil crisis, Germany embraced its domestic coal riches and relied on its bigger spending power to outbid other European buyers on oil markets – much to the chagrin of France, which lacked a substantial coal industry and had pleaded for joint oil price controls. As a result, Paris went out on a reactor-building spree, the Messmer Plan, which saw the fleet increase considerably throughout the 1980s.
With its national nuclear arms program already fully developed at the time, France therefore sought to extend use from the military to the civilian realm. At the same time in Germany, which lacked nuclear arms, anti-nuclear protests (that also helped birth the country’s Green Party) pushed society further away from the technology – and a few industrious citizen cooperatives embarked on first renewable power projects. “The Germans tend to believe that there is no separation between the civilian and military sectors, and this is what scares them,” said energy historian Alain Beltran from the Sorbonne University in Paris. “By contrast, in France, there is no immediate link between civil and military realm. This is a fundamental difference.”
Unfettered by the Chernobyl disaster, nuclear power firmly established itself as the mainstay of the French electricity system – which fitted its desire for relative control over supply and chimed with intensifying concerns about fossil fuel emissions in the 1990s. “France has had an energy policy based on greater independence, with an electro-nuclear policy as a major axis,” Beltran said. Germany, on the other hand, went on to push for a full exit from nuclear power and started to phase-in renewables in earnest, while at the same time betting on concepts like ‘clean coal’ plants or gas as ‘bridge technology’ towards decarbonisation which it could freely buy on the market – or through preferential agreements as with Russia, which German reunification helped greatly reinforce.
France and Germany share most energy challenges despite decades of diverging strategies
Fast-forward to 2022, excluding greater sovereignty from its energy strategy turned out to be a major miscalculation by Germany. Scholz’s ‘Zeitenwende’ policy – which included the 200-billion euro shield – in response to Russia’s war kicked off a turbulent period in which the country paid dearly for its previous reliance on cheap Russian gas. Simultaneously, it saw years of warnings from its EU partners, particularly in the east, over the hapless Nord Stream 2 pipeline come true in what had been widely received as a massive geopolitical own-goal.
Despite its nuclear backbone and accent on sovereignty lowering exposure to Russia, France too faced massive repercussions in the crisis. France spent 45 billion euros on support programmes and ended up fully nationalising its key energy company and reactor operator, EDF, for nearly 10 billion euros. And while nuclear dominates the national electricity mix, only about a quarter of the total energy consumption in both countries is covered electrically. France imports most of its energy in the form of fossil fuels to run cars, fire up industry sites or heat homes – and in 2022 even became the world’s largest importer of liquefied natural gas (LNG) from the U.S., some of which subsequently was sent on to Germany.
Faced with strikingly similar challenges despite decades of different decisions – and far-right parties lurking in either country to capitalise on fears of high energy prices and difficult emissions reduction policies – solutions from either side of the Rhine so far have failed to provide a convincing picture of Europe’s energy and climate strategy moving forward. In both cases, the dominant sources of energy created economic and social linkages that are difficult to disentangle, which Germany has found in its heated but ultimately successful negotiations for a coal phase-out in 2038 – a date that economic realities might ultimately ring in faster. France’s ‘nuclear renaissance’ and German plans to increase its capacity for gas-fired power production (built with the later use of green hydrogen in mind, although this aim is still beset with unresolved technical and logistical difficulties) both remain concepts anchored in national path dependencies.
“The debate on the way electricity is produced in our country is taking over the public space as soon as we talk about energy,” said Phuc-Vinh Nguyen, energy researcher at the Paris-based branch of think tank Jacques Delors Institute. “This leads to a focus that is on either renewable energies or nuclear power, and not really on how we want to move away from fossil fuels,” he adds, advocating for more speed and cooperation in areas beyond electricity. This is particularly true for transport, which is the biggest emitter in France and in Germany has not reduced its carbon footprint in a meaningful way since 1990. “We will need proactive policies in the very short term.”
Multitude of current Franco-German initiatives needs solid strategic footing
In acknowledgement of the need to break free from trodden paths, French president Macron reached out to Germany on multiple occasions since taking over office in 2017, appealing to a “Franco-German momentum” that should put Europe ahead in the global race for clean technologies in transport, housing, industry or agriculture. But the proposals, including an EU carbon border tax (CBAM) and an internal carbon price and targeted efforts to ramp up harmonised infrastructure, did not bear fruit under Scholz’ predecessor, Angela Merkel. This was not least due to the German industry’s reservations about effects on competitiveness, which persisted even when key parts of the proposals were adopted some six years later.
Yet, also the French appetite for a “momentum” at times appears to have ebbed in the interim. Its approach to secure EU funding for reactor construction by all means nagged on the ability to make incremental progress on the energy policy fields with shared competences that are left for EU-wide approaches, mostly renewable power and efficiency. Despite it forging an alliance with other states interested in reviewing nuclear power options, France remains an outlier in that it operates the largest fleet by far and dominates Europe’s capacity for reactor construction. Such vested interests in one technology may well hamper a common line on expanding renewables.
Truly zooming out from the national perspective and moving on to adopt a European one could change the calculus both in Paris and Berlin, said Murielle Gagnebin, France expert for the Agora Energiewende think tank in Berlin. “The cooperation between France and Germany on both energy and climate leaves a lot to be desired still,” she said, despite a multitude of already existing initiatives aimed at pushing joint activities across the Rhine river. These should be upgraded to make sure that the spat triggered during the 2022 energy crisis marks the starting point of a more earnest approach to energy integration, Gagnebin said. Platforms such as the Franco-German Meseberg Climate Working Group could help to purposefully close the gap in concepts for Europe’s energy future, which grow bigger with each national advance. “It’s important to ensure that the continuity of these efforts does not depend on individual commitments or affected by short-term developments, such as changes in government.”
Irrespective of the future course of nuclear power in France and Europe, agreeing on common investment and infrastructure priorities, state support rules, sourcing of raw materials and on what generally constitutes a ‘green’ economy will be the decisive field of Franco-German energy cooperation at the EU level, all experts agree. Irrespective of the route the ‘Franco-German engine’ ultimately takes, the question of what it is powered with should no longer cause a stir once another French president takes a trip to Berlin in some 25 years.
Camille Lafrance is a freelance journalist covering climate policy, agriculture and adaptation
Benjamin Wehrmann is a staff Correspondent for Clean Energy Wire (CLEW)
This article is published under a “Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International Licence (CC BY 4.0)”