It’s a big week for European shuttle diplomacy.
On Monday, French President Emmanuel Macron kicked off a two-day trip to Moscow and then Kyiv, where he’s meeting the presidents of Russia and Ukraine to seek a diplomatic solution to the Ukraine crisis. At the same time, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz was in Washington, trying to convince US President Joe Biden to trust him despite being wish-washy on Russia — just a week before Scholz meets Vladimir Putin himself.
Get ready to rumble in the fight for European diplomat-in-chief.
But first, a clarification: whatever you might read about Macron “going rogue” on Biden, or about Scholz’s dovish approach to Russia threatening European unity, France, Germany, and the US are still allies. Macron keeping Scholz and Biden out of the loop on his talks with Putin and Volodymyr Zelensky is as unlikely as the German chancellor cutting a deal with Biden behind Macron’s back.
Also, a common European or NATO position on Ukraine will depend on whether Putin actually invades, pulls back, or does something in between. Still, France and Germany have somewhat competing interests, which reflect how their leaders might approach conversations with the other big players in this crisis.
France has tried to carve out a Goldilocks position on Russia, somewhere between US toughness and German caution. Macron wants to get the Russians to withdraw from the Ukrainian border in exchange for offering Moscow a new security partnership with Europe that’ll do two things. It will address Putin’s gripes about NATO expansion while moving Russia closer to Europe and away from BFF China.
Ambitious? Perhaps. But Macron — who once called NATO “brain-dead” — thinks he can pull it off by convincing other NATO allies to forever hold off on Ukraine’s future membership without saying so explicitly (like member states have done for decades with Turkey's bid to join the EU).
Macron’s ultimate goal is to realize France’s decade-long dream of having a European foreign policy more independent of America and led by Paris. A diplomatic breakthrough with Putin would be a big boost for those plans — and would play well at home just weeks before the French presidential election in April.
Scholz, for his part, would rather not rock the boat. And it’s not just because Germany is more dependent than France on Russian natural gas.
First, Scholz still has some housecleaning to do on clarifying Germany’s actual stance on Russia. His two junior coalition partners and part of his SPD party are gunning for a harder line on Russia, but influential members of Germany’s business community — especially those with a stake in the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline — and other SPD voices are urging him to lay low.
Second, the Germans are as reluctant to take more responsibility for Europe’s defense outside NATO as they are to let the French take ownership of it. They are happy following Angela Merkel’s playbook of letting the Americans call the shots and then calming down Washington if things get too hot.
The German chancellor certainly looked glum when Biden announced during a joint presser on Tuesday that "we" will stop Nord Stream 2 if Russian troops cross the Ukrainian border.Whoever wins this week’s contest of Euro shuttle diplomacy will emerge as a top contender in the bid to become Europe’s new leader. With a retired Merkel out of the picture, Macron may think it’s time for a bold move against the more cautious Scholz.