Macron’s ‘intimate meetings’ with Merkel’s successor expose France’s EU masterplan

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Armin Laschet has been appointed new federal chairman of Germany’s centre-right Christian Democrats (CDU). He was elected earlier this month, in a runoff against conservative Friedrich Merz by 521 votes to 466, to resolve a three-way contest that also featured outsider Norbert Röttgen. Among the three candidates, Mr Laschet, who since 2017 has been the premier of Germany’s most populous state North Rhine-Westphalia, is the one who stands most strongly for a continuation of Angela Merkel’s course and a “CDU of the centre”.

In his victory speech, Mr Laschet promised to fight for the party to do well in upcoming regional elections and to keep hold of the position of Chancellor.

As his election marks a new era for both Germany and the bloc, Paris appears to be most pleased with the appointment.

France’s Minister for European Affairs Clement Beaune told Welt Am Sonntag: “This is excellent news for France and for Europe.

“Armin Laschet has the sense for a European Germany.

“He is a friend of France and a committed European.”

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French President Emmanuel Macron has made no secret of his preference for Mr Laschet.

In 2020 alone, the two met three times.

Alongside German Minister of Health Jens Spahn, Mr Laschet was invited by Mr Macron to attend the 2020 Bastille Day celebrations in Paris, in a sign of gratitude for their role in helping French citizens during the Covid-19 pandemic.

In an honour reserved for special guests, Mr Macron also invited the new CDU leader into the Élysée Palace gardens.

Mr Laschet is generally seen in line with Mrs Merkel’s views on key issues.

However, when it comes to the EU, he has often criticised the German Chancellor for not being ambitious enough.

At the Munich Security Conference last year, he said: “Today the French President [Emmanuel Macron] is making proposals, but we are taking too long to respond.”

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It is no secret that the French leader has been trying hard to reform Brussels.

Elected on a staunchly pro-EU platform, Mr Macron’s presidency opened the door to potentially momentous changes in the bloc.

Britain’s vote to leave, the aftermath of the transatlantic financial crisis, and the failed 2005 French and Dutch referendums on the EU constitution project had already made clear that institutional reforms were needed.

In sweeping speeches, Mr Macron set out a bold vision.

In an impassioned, hour-and-a-half long speech at Paris’ prestigious Sorbonne University three years ago, the French President outlined his vision for a “profound transformation” of the EU, unveiling a series of proposals to deepen the bloc politically and harmonise rules across the continent.

However, while Mrs Merkel has also pushed for more European integration, the German Chancellor has adopted a more cautious approach.

In 2018, the German leader said she was more open to Mr Macron’s plans to reform migration and defence policy in Europe than his hopes to bolster the euro.

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This is why when Mrs Merkel and Mr Macron unveiled a proposal for a Recovery Fund to help the European economy back on its feet last year, many of her closest allies were stunned.

Berlin had always opposed the idea that money from such a fund would be distributed in the form of non-refundable grants rather than loans.

For Germany, that smacked too much of fiscal transfers from richer to poorer EU states — taboo in Berlin.

A French official told the Financial Times: “The whole thing being in grants is pretty good.

“I’m not sure we were fully expecting that.”

One senior adviser to Mrs Merkel’s CDU tried to explain the U-turn, saying: “The big concern is that the economic crisis will destroy the European single market and even threaten the future of the EU.”

She added that the Chancellor needed a “grand gesture” to prove she had not abandoned southern European nations hit hard by the virus.

On the other hand, Mr Laschet did not seem to need any convincing on the Recovery Fund.

Already during the European debt crisis, Mr Laschet had called for an “open discussion” towards a broad solution to the debt crisis, of which “eurobonds” could have been a part.

Eurobonds were strongly opposed by Mrs Merkel.

Taking Mr Macron’s side once again, who at the time was France’s Economy Minister, Mr Laschet argued that a Greek exit from the eurozone could have triggered undesirable upheaval in southern Europe.

He said: “(An exit) could lead to instability in a NATO member state. Russia is standing ready with billions to help Greece in such a scenario.”

In October 2011, he signed George Soros’ open letter calling for more EU involvement in the single currency turmoil.

If Mr Laschet wins the German elections in September 2021 and replaces Mrs Merkel as Chancellor, Mr Macron would finally find an ally ready to take a more ambitious approach when it comes to Europe.

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