Franco-German ties on a new political highway
BRUSSELS THE high-flying, jet-setting close relationship between France and Germany that defined many a European Union summit has ended. On Wednesday, France’s new socialist president decided to take the train.
And instead of Nicolas Sarkozy’s sharp suits, hyperactive demeanour and staunch defence of capitalism, German Chancellor Angela Merkel will be dealing from now on with Francois Hollande, who draws his strength from a working class weakened by belt-tightening.
The change of style and mood was obvious at the first EU summit since the May 6 French presidential changeover and it could rattle the political geography of the 27-nation bloc.
Wednesday’s dinner, which spilled into Thursday, was a mere prelude to a next month’s two-day summit when decisions have to be taken on growth, jobs and debt when tempers will surely flare.
“There were not - if that’s what you expected - conflicts, confrontations,” Hollande said after crayfish, John Dory and chocolate mousse softened the dinner talk.
Avoiding confrontation almost seemed a victory after years of the closest of cooperation between the two core nations of the EU.
Merkel and Sarkozy worked side by side for years as the formidable “Merkozy”, seeking to drag the eurozone out of its ever-lengthening crisis. This time around, Merkel will face a French president coming with his own economic medicine, pitting his spend-for-growth prescription against Merkel’s continued austerity.
On Wednesday, Hollande and Merkel already had fighting words, or at least one fighting word‚ “eurobonds.” Eurobonds essentially define debt issued jointly by the 17 countries sharing the euro currency, which would bring down borrowing rates for financially troubled states by distributing the risk of their debt across the whole region.
For years now, Merkel has said such bonds would offer an easy escape for profligate nations while punishing those who lived responsibly.
Hollande, on the other hand, sees them as a way to promote growth in the eurozone.
Merkel stood her ground Wednesday. “The (EU) treaties forbid taking on a mutual liability, that includes in our opinion also eurobonds.” “They are not a contribution to foster growth in the eurozone because the very similar interest rates which we have had over many years, have basically led to grave wrong developments,” she maintained.
In the face of a looming recession, Hollande wants to consider “all ways to increase growth. And eurobonds are part of the discussion.” Instead of a Franco- German axis that has underpinned the growth of the European Union for over half a century, it was a rift touching on the fundamental options on how to get the continent back to financial health.
The difference was even physical. Sometimes Merkel and Sarkozy would stride in the summit hall together working the crowd of government leaders in unison and spreading the economic gospel they had decided on together in a pre-summit meeting away from the others.
On Wednesday, Merkel was long hobnobbing with colleagues in the room before Hollande came in.
The new president was welcomed like a rookie with friendly handshakes and congratulations by several leaders who had come to loathe Sarkozy’s expansive ways.