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Berlin Bulletin: Franco-German meeting — Chinese influence — Election repeat

A weekly newsletter on German politics, with news and analysis on the new government.

By GABRIEL RINALDI and HANS VON DER BURCHARD

with Louis Westendarp

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VIVE L’AMITIÉ FRANCO-ALLEMANDE? If German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and French President Emmanuel Macron struggle to get along, perhaps their foreign ministers can get the Franco-German engine running again. Germany’s Annalena Baerbock will meet France’s Catherine Colonna on Monday in Paris to reinforce bilateral ties following a problematic public falling-out of Scholz and Macron last month. In Paris, it has been positively noted that Baerbock showed lots of interest for Franco-German concerns during a recent meeting of the Franco-German parliamentary assembly.

January 22 summit: The Baerbock-Colonna meeting comes as Berlin and Paris are closing in on a new date for their postponed ministerial council — a joint meeting of both government cabinets that had been planned for late October but was postponed at short notice as both sides disagreed over key issues such as energy and defense. Now both sides are aiming for January 22, exactly 60 years after the signature of the historic Élysée treaty that laid the foundation for Franco-German partnership, although the date has not yet been officially confirmed.

Symbolic moment: “We are working to make the 60th anniversary of the Elysée Treaty a strong symbolic moment in the bilateral relationship and mark its historic role in European construction,” a French diplomat told POLITICO, while stressing that there was still no confirmation on the ministerial council taking place on that date. On January 22, 1963, German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer and French President Charles de Gaulle signed the “Treaty of Franco-German cooperation” in which both sides committed to leave centuries of mutual mistrust and hostilities behind and work together for the good of closer European integration.

Mark your calendars: Officials in Berlin confirmed that there was talk of a January 22 ministerial council, which would probably be held in Fontainebleau south of Paris, but also cautioned that it was not finally decided. A German government spokesperson had no comment. Berlin Bulletin hopes that German ministers mark the date (a Sunday) in their calendars, as one embarrassing (albeit not decisive) reason for the postponement of the last planned ministerial meeting in October had been that five German ministers wanted to leave on holiday at that specific date.

CHINESE INVESTMENTS IN EUROPE

MORE THAN COSCO: Thought the discussion on the Hamburg Port was over?Well, the Dutch Embassy in Berlin organized an event where researchers discussed Chinese investments in European port infrastructure. On Monday, Frans-Paul von der Putten (Clingendael) and Jacob Gunter (MERICS) gave more context to China’s strategy. Berlin Bulletin brings you the most important points.

It’s geopolitics, stupid: “As the global geopolitical context is changing and there is a growing antagonism between China and the West, our assessment of what it means that China is investing in Europe is changing,” von der Putten said. Citing a new study that Clingendael conducted with Erasmus University of Rotterdam, he claimed that although uncertainty about China prevails, it is necessary to take precautions now, considering a diverse set of scenarios.

Calling Brussels: The study, analyzing four of those scenarios for the Netherlands, concluded that — obviously — a European solution is needed. Not so obvious is the fact that Dutch ports are critical infrastructure for Germany as well. “Rotterdam and Antwerp serve the German economy, in some ways even more than the Dutch or Belgian economies,” von der Putten explained, making a case for a European strategy. And here, he underlines, it is not enough to reason from a risk perspective. “There are reasons why we are so much connected to China economically.”

Chinese interests: Looking at the operational side of Chinese investments, Jacob Gunter explained the role of state-owned China Cosco Shipping Corporation, mainly referred to as Cosco — one of the largest container carriers in the world. “The first priority of any state-owned company is to serve the strategic interests of the party state,” Gunter said. 

Under Beijing’s control: As the researcher pointed out by illustrating a behemoth of state-owned industry companies — ship or container manufacturers and even steelmakers — Cosco is not just Cosco. Indeed, it is owned by SASAC, a huge holding firm for state-owned companies directly under the party’s control — making the line of command short and fueling EU antitrust officials’ nightmares. As Gunter described it, this immensely distorts the market. Yet, Brussels is still playing China’s game.

Distorted market access: This also holds true when talking about market access. As Gunter argued, Chinese shipping players can do whatever they want in Europe, whereas European carriers face lots of limitations in Chinese ports. “Imagine a petrol station where you’re only allowed to sell petrol. Then, somebody next to you is allowed to open a petrol station, but they can sell petrol, food, and drinks,” Gunter explained. The second station could decrease the price of petrol and make up for that with food and drinks.

EU policies needed: That’s why, in a nutshell, China dominates the seas. What’s next? According to Gunter, the EU must react by establishing an EU-level maritime cabotage law — regulating the sea like air or land transport. Also, he mentions stricter antitrust and anti-monopoly rules for Chinese players. “An EU-level mechanism aimed at such distortions is needed to build a complete trade defense toolkit.”

ONE MORE TIME

ONLY IN BERLIN: That’s what many might have thought when Berlin’s constitutional court ruled this week that last year’s regional elections in the city state must be repeated, with presiding judge Ludgera Selting citing “serious systemic flaws” in the preparation of the elections and speaking of a “unique” case in the history of German elections. In September 2021, Berlin held four votes in parallel — the German federal election, regional elections, local district elections and a referendum on socializing housing companies — but sticking with its reputation of often being badly organized, if not chaotic, the city state also decided to host its famous international marathon that day which hampered movement across the city.

A slap in the face for Berlin’s authorities: Consequences of the bad organization include incorrect or missing ballots, too few ballot boxes, long waiting lines, and votes cast after the closing time. Invalidating the results was necessary to ensure that the parliament’s election met democratic standards, the court said. Democratic principles of publicity, generality, and equality were violated on election day.

New vote could shift the majorities: New elections could change the composition of the regional government, as Franziska Giffey’s center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) — the incumbent mayor — is expected to face a head-to-head with the Greens and the center-left Christian Democratic Union (CDU). This even has the potential to affect political balance in the Bundesrat.

And what about the Bundestag? Last week, the German federal parliament voted to also partially repeat the federal election in 431 out of 2,257 electoral districts in Berlin — mainly due to the same reasons (surprise, surprise). And given this week’s court rulings, the issue could even be taken to the federal constitutional court to demand a repeat of the federal election across the entire city state.

COMMENTARY BOX

SUMMIT WEEKS: German representatives travelled to the G20 summit in Bali and the COP-27 in Sharm El-Sheikh this week — triggering different reactions.  

A diplomatic tour de force: “For a long time, no diplomat would have bet that there would be any chance at all of a final communiqué from the G20 states,” comments Torsten Henke in the Abendzeitung München. “What then reached the public as a draft is a diplomatic tour de force.” It is particularly painful for Putin that his big neighbor and ally China makes no effort to support him publicly, Henke writes.

Russian propaganda: The “evil West” has politicized the statement and tried to smuggle in wording implying a condemnation of Russia, said Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Sven Hansen of the taz comments: “Just as Moscow seeks to transfigure its disaster in Kherson as nothing more than a tactical retreat, so Moscow is also propagandistically re-knitting its diplomatic defeat.”

Mammoth conferences: From Bali we go to Egypt, where the 27th climate conference is ending. Jens Kleindienst asks in the Main Spitze: Do such mammoth conferences have a future? “For almost two weeks now, they have been sitting together in Sharm El-Sheikh, but so far very little has come out for the climate.”

Global cooperation: To make any difference at all, the biggest polluters would have to pull together”, Henrik Müller writes in his column for Spiegel. “Together, the G20 emits around 80 percent of the carbon dioxide currently emitted. If anyone could do something about heating up the atmosphere, it would be this group of countries.”

WEEK AHEAD

BUSY DAYS: Next week is packed, as both the Bundestag and Bundesrat have a sitting week. This means that many decision-makers will be in town. Nevertheless, we first look at something very German.

CHRISTMAS IS COMING: It’s Christmas market season! On Monday, the most popular Weihnachtsmärkte open their doors. How about a cup of mulled wine at Gendarmenmarkt or a freshly baked waffle at Breitscheidplatz? Bulletin’s favorite, by the way, is the Christmas market at Charlottenburg Palace. If you want to escape the hustle and bustle of the city center, head to the Botanical Garden. Every year, it is transformed into a sparkling fairy-tale land.

WHAT ABOUT THE ECONOMY? Back to business. From Tuesday to Thursday, decision-makers gather at the Economic Summit of the Süddeutsche Zeitung at Berlin’s prestigious Hotel Adlon. Chancellor Olaf Scholz and various ministers will discuss how the economy ought to create trust between war and peace.

WORK IN PROGRESS: On Wednesday, Berlin is under the sign of construction. First, the German Construction Industry Day takes place at Hotel Titanic at 3 p.m., where Construction Minister Klara Geywitz and Finance Minister Christian Lindner, among others, will speak. Then, starting at 5 p.m., Vonovia invites discussion on the future of construction at Futurium Berlin.

THE STATE OF GERMAN DEMOCRACY: On Friday, the German Society (Deutsche Gesellschaft) discusses in the Hessian State Representation how functional the Berlin Republic is. It aims to find out to what extent there is a need for reform so that politics, economy, and society can better cope with the future.

THANK YOU: To our colleagues Tristan Fiedler and Clea Caulcutt, our editor Jones Hayden and producer Giulia Poloni.

Berlin Bulletin: Franco-German meeting — Chinese influence — Election repeat

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