New French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel did their best on Monday to restore the image of a Franco-German engine to re-launch the European project.
Apart from the warming in relations and declarations of good intentions between Paris and Berlin, however, no major change in the European Union (EU) is expected before legislative elections take place in the two countries. The “re-founding” of the EU appears even more difficult given the two major leaders must convince public opinion in their respective countries.
The day after his inauguration on Monday, the new French president traveled to Berlin to meet Chancellor Merkel for his first foreign visit. The pro-European founder of the En Marche (On The Move) movement, often considered beyond the Rhine as a “carrier of hope” (Hoffnungstrager), was received with enthusiasm.
“We are at a historic moment in Europe … We have need of an historical time which would be a time of re-founding,” Macron affirmed during a press conference.
Chancellor Merkel assured: “Germany is well when Europe is well. And Europe is only good if France is strong … We want to create a new dynamic.”
A council of Franco-German ministers will be held in July to present shared projects and re-launch cooperation between the two countries, Merkel said.
“We want to establish a roadmap for the construction of the EU. We will need to occupy ourselves with Brexit and with the way to improve the eurozone in order to give it a new momentum,” she added.
Faced with the rise of populism and Brexit, the arrival of Macron to the presidency, (but even more so the elimination of Europhobic candidate for the extreme right candidate Marine Le Pen), has undeniably provoked relief in Berlin, as in many European capitals.
But from there, to conclude that the EU, under the momentum of the Franco-German alliance, took on a new direction Monday, would be hasty.
“At the beginning of everything there is charm,” Merkel slipped in, citing German writer Hermann Hesse, before adding: “But charm only lasts if the results are there.”
The new French leader, like his German counterpart, knows well that they cannot promise anything before the decisive results of the votes they are anticipating.
The legislative elections in June remain very uncertain for Macron who, without a majority in the French National Assembly, will be in a very difficult position to carry out the reforms that Berlin and European partners are demanding. As for the German Chancellor, she also remains in suspense leading up to the Bundestag elections on Sept. 24.
To be able to assure leadership in the EU with Merkel, the French president, confronted with the thorny issue of labor market reform and the question of public deficits, is obliged to succeed if he wants to restore confidence, a term which he also hammered out during the press conference.
“I must, in France, lead deep reforms, which are necessary for our country but necessary also for the full restoration of Franco-German confidence,” he said. “Our relationship needs more confidence and concrete results,” he added, in calling for “much pragmatism in the short term”.
The task will not be easy for Macron. According to the most recent statistics from the European Commission, France could in fact be the only country of the 19 in the eurozone to show a public deficit in 2018 of more than 3 percent of gross domestic product (GDP), the limit set by European rules, against a surplus of only 0.3 percent in Germany.
In addition, the rate of unemployment is estimated at close to 4 percent in Germany, less than half of the rate in France (9.9 percent).
On the question of “Eurobonds”, to which the Germans are very hostile, Macron reassured, “I am not a promoter of the sharing of old debts.”
His proposals for a single finance minister and a shared budget for the eurozone has raised mistrust in a Germany worried they might be required to pay more for countries unable to clean up their finances.
Meanwhile, Merkel showed a certain openness to the proposal of the French President to change EU treaties in order to reform Europe “if that makes sense”.
While her finance minister Wolfgang Schauble is saying that the political situation renders illusory any project aiming to revise the treaties. In practice, any revision of the treaties implies unanimous adoption by all EU member states.
If the German Chancellor and the French President have a window of opportunity to make a step forward, it is important, however, not to forget that the two countries do not necessarily have the same priorities.
And from one bank of the Rhine to the other, differences of understanding could make the search for compromise difficult to achieve. The French remain fervent partisans for a voluntarist state, while Germans clearly prefer the “system of rules” which supervises an activity.
First, Paris and Berlin will very probably work to jump-start several bogged-down initiatives, like the fight against the abuse of overseas postings, the harmonization of asylum policy and the “reciprocity” in commercial relations between the EU and the rest of the world.
The two leaders have evoked several other zones of cooperation, starting with defense, but also digital technology, fiscal issues, international politics and education.