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What were the top stories in Europe this week?

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_State of the Union is our weekly show that brings you the top stories from Europe.
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No other country in western Europe has been criticised more for allegedly doing too little too late to support Ukraine than Germany.

Its political class has been accused of cosying up to the Kremlin for decades to protect its lucrative business ties with Russia.

But over the past months, things have changed: former chancellors Gerard Schröder and Angela Merkel have come under intensified scrutiny and the current president Frank-Walter Steinmeier, a former foreign minister, had to apologise publicly for a failed policy towards Russia.

However, this week, Steinmeier made a surprise trip to Ukraine after being snubbed by Kyiv half a year ago.

In the northern town of Koriukivka, he was forced to take cover in an air raid shelter when sirens went off. More than other western leaders he felt what the war in Ukraine is like.

At the same time, in another show of support, Germany co-hosted an international conference in Berlin, together with the European Commission, on rebuilding Ukraine, which is being billed as a monumental task by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.

“The scale of destruction is staggering. The World Bank puts the costs of the damage at €350 billion. This is for sure more than one country or one union can provide alone. We need all hands on deck,” she said.

German Chancellor, Olaf Scholz, did not mince his words either.

“So that’s what is at stake here: nothing less than creating a new Marshall Plan for the 21st century,” he said in Berlin on Tuesday.

“A generational task that must begin now. The recovery, reconstruction and modernisation of Ukraine will indeed be a challenge for generations, one that will require the combined strength of the entire international community.”

Paris and Berlin feel the strain

Germany’s role in the management of the consequences of the war in Ukraine has led to strained relations with its closest friend and ally France.

This week, Emmanuel Macron and Scholz had a hastily arranged working lunch in Paris, after initially scheduled French-German government consultations on the same day had been postponed.

The meeting typically is held annually but hasn’t taken place in person since the COVID-19 pandemic.

Officially, the reason for the postponement of the meeting is that several German ministers are unavailable due to school holidays.

But difficulties in finding common grounds on a host of topics, including how to best tackle skyrocketing energy prices, as well as defence, loom large.

Following the meeting on Wednesday though, Scholz played down rumours that the Franco-German engine is spluttering.

The two leaders did not appear in front of the press together following their meeting. Berlin initially said the two leaders would face reporters together after their meeting only for Paris to refute it later.

Instead, Scholz took to Twitter where he assured that he had had “a very good and important conversation today” with his French counterpart on issues including energy supply and joint armament projects.

“Germany and France are standing closely together and tackling the challenges together,” he insisted.

According to Ronja Kempin, a senior fellow at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, Paris and Berlin are used to turbulence in their relations.

“[If] we look back at almost 60 years of Franco-German relationships, there have always been ups and downs. But I think what is different today is that the war has changed a bit the arithmetics of the couple,” Kempin told Euronews.

“We had this arrangement – France was the security and defence powerhouse of Europe, Germany, more the economic one. And with the war now, Germany also intends to become a military leader of Europe, and so is challenging France. And this is why things are a bit complicated at the moment.”

Meloni’s premiership confirmed

Something that could bring the German and French leaders closer together, at least on a European level, is the final confirmation of Giorgia Meloni as Italy’s new Prime Minister and head of a ring-wing coalition.

She took office on Thursday after a ceremony in the courtyard of the Palazzo Chigi, her official residence.

The Fratelli d’Italia leader will be the country’s first female Prime Minister and will lead Italy alongside anti-migrant League leader Matteo Salvini and conservative former Premier Silvio Berlusconi.

Meloni made sure to distance herself from claims that her party is nostalgic for fascism and sympathetic to Russia, stating that she “cannot accept” Russia’s “war of aggression” on Ukraine.

She also said that her government wants to “stop the illegal [migrant] departures and put an end to human trafficking”.

She will need some luck, however, given the quarrelsome mood that very often characterises the political atmosphere inside Italian governments, which have an average life span of less than a year in post-war Italy. 

Chinese ‘police stations’ operating in Holland

In other news, the Dutch foreign ministry said it was investigating reports that China had set up two “illegal police stations” in the Netherlands to monitor dissidents.

According to media reports in the Netherlands, two Chinese “posts” have been operating in Amsterdam and Rotterdam since 2018.

The “police stations” allegedly claim to offer diplomatic assistance to Chinese nationals, but have not been registered with the Dutch government.

NGOs have claimed that the facilities are actually used by Beijing to monitor and silence political opponents and dissidents abroad, using former military and intelligence officers as employees.

China’s government said the reports were “completely false”.

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