Yellow Vest drama or Nord Stream spat: Why did Macron suddenly abandon Merkel in Munich?

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Emmanuel Macron has abruptly canceled his trip to the Munich Security Conference, with the Élysée saying he is focused on domestic issues amidst the ongoing Yellow Vest protests – but German media is seeing Russia in all this.

The cancellation comes as the French president was accused of attempting to torpedo the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline, which is funded by Russian energy giant Gazprom and supported by Germany – as well as Belgium, Austria, Greece and Cyprus, and the Netherlands.

Paris, worried about European dependence on Russian energy, said on Thursday –and ahead of a key EU vote– that it wants the bloc’s Third Energy Package rules to be applied to the Nord Stream deal. Those rules forbid the same company from generating, transmitting and selling energy at the same time and, if applied, could derail the deal.

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France’s move could put serious cracks in Macron’s relationship with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Canceling allows him to avoid making a potentially awkward planned joint appearance with Merkel at the event in Munich.

In this context, not everyone is buying the line that Macron is staying home just to deal with fallout from the Yellow Vest protests. Henrik Enderlein, director of the German-French Jacques Delors Institute in Berlin, told Süddeutsche Zeitung that the president’s decision to nix his appearance at the mid-February conference was a “symbolic signal” and that there are more and more signs of a “creeping alienation” between Paris and Berlin.

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The Élysée Palace maintains, however, that drama over the pipeline has nothing to do with Macron’s decision not to attend the Munich conference, a major annual international calendar event.

Germany has been a major supporter of the pipeline, despite expressions of concern coming from some Eastern European leaders, who also say the multi-billion euro project will leave them too dependent on Russia.

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From the sidelines of meetings with Eastern European leaders in Bratislava on Thursday, Merkel said that differing opinions on the gas pipeline were nothing new and that it would not make Europe “solely” dependent on Russia.

The tensions with Berlin come as Macron also finds himself in the middle of a another diplomatic spat, this one with Italy. On Thursday, Paris promptly recalled its ambassador from Rome after Italy’s co-deputy prime ministers Luigi Di Maio and Matteo Salvini met with French Yellow Vest protesters and criticized Macron’s leadership.

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