Angela Merkel and François Hollande renew joint commitment to Europe

GERMANY’S chancellor Angela Merkel and French president François Hollande met yesterday to mark the 50th anniversary of the pact which sealed their nations’ post-war reconciliation.

They vowed to bridge their differences on the shape of the single European currency and unveil joint proposals on deeper integration within months.

Mrs Merkel, a conservative, and Mr Hollande, a socialist, have had an uneasy relationship since he swept into office eight months ago vowing to reverse German-backed austerity policies designed to shore up the crisis-hit eurozone.

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But the two leaders, born less than a month apart in 1954, yesterday stressed their common values and hailed the importance of the Franco-German partnership after centuries of conflict that culminated in two world wars and led historians to speak of a “hereditary enmity”.
“The young people of our countries have the great fortune to have never known anything but peace and democracy,” said Mr Hollande, speaking in the Reichstag building in Berlin to a joint session of parliament.

But he added that the youth now faced “an economic and social crisis of unprecedented duration”, requiring common efforts to boost economic output and create jobs.

Mrs Merkel, speaking earlier at a joint news conference, said the leaders would tackle one of the most divisive issues between the two countries – deeper economic and fiscal integration – and present joint proposals before a summit of EU leaders scheduled for June.

She also said she would support a French candidate to run the new European bank supervision body that becomes operational next year, under the aegis of the European Central Bank.

The three-year-old debt crisis that started in Greece and even threatened France has exposed structural deficiencies in the euro experiment, forcing its members to consider closer co-operation. But Berlin and Paris have starkly different visions of what a closer currency union should look like, with Mrs Merkel favouring tighter central controls over budgets and Mr Hollande seeking more solidarity, in the form of a big eurozone budget to deal with crises.

“It is about a deeper co-operation in economic policy with the goal of social security, employment, growth and financial stability,” Mrs Merkel said of the joint proposals that are to be presented by May.

The return of a French Socialist government under Hollande initially led to tension between Paris and Berlin. But after a brief flirt with Italy and Spain in mid-2012 that spawned talk of an anti-German southern bloc within Europe, Mr Hollande has turned back to Berlin, keen not to be lumped too closely with the euro’s troubled periphery at a time when France’s own economy is wobbling and in need of reform.

After six months of earnest handshakes, the two leaders now kiss each other on the cheek when they meet.

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At a dinner in the chancellery on Monday, they began using the familiar “du” and “tu” with each other, said aides.

“It has not escaped you that we do not belong to the same political family. Despite that, if you look back at the past eight months, I’m very happy with what France and Germany have been able to accomplish to get the euro zone out of its crisis,” Mr Hollande said. “If you look at the results, it’s clear we’re on the same wavelength.”

Mrs Merkel, who refused to meet Mr Hollande during last year’s French election campaign while openly supporting his right-wing opponent Nicolas Sarkozy, said: “It may be our best-kept secret that the chemistry actually works.”