GERMANY AND FRANCE sought to paper-over tensions from the euro crisis which has propelled Berlin into Europe’s driving seat when their leaders kicked off events marking 50 years of post-war reconciliation.
French President Francois Hollande teamed up with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in snow-bedecked Berlin to launch a packed, pomp-filled agenda to fete the Elysee Treaty, which in 1963 opened a new chapter in Franco-German ties.
Ahead of a working dinner where the two leaders were likely to discuss world hotspots such as the crisis in Mali, they faced an around 90-minute, at times light-hearted grilling on a range of European issues by about 200 French and German youths in a live televised debate.
As well as on tackling the three-year debt crisis, Paris and Berlin have limited cooperation on military matters, as Mali and Germany’s non-intervention in Libya in 2011 showed, but Merkel sought to play down their differences.
“Step by step we will always weigh up, can we do that, or can’t we… One thing is also right, we must of course not leave ourselves high and dry. We are partners,” she said.
While French troops are fighting alongside Malian forces against Islamist militants in the west African state, Germany has pledged two military transport planes and €1 million ($1.3 million) in humanitarian aid.
“We are not so experienced in Africa” compared to former colonial power, France, Merkel said, stressing the country still had forces in Afghanistan and often needed a parliamentary mandate for military deployments.
For his part, Hollande welcomed Germany’s “immediate” support on Mali.
In signing the landmark treaty on January 22, 1963, then French president Charles de Gaulle and West German chancellor Konrad Adenauer paved the way for the cooperation which has since driven European unity.
Merkel acknowledged differences with France in her weekly podcast Saturday but said she felt “a very great closeness” with Germany’s neighbour, adding: “And when we have come together, then mostly a good new solution has come out of it.”
After Merkel spearheaded much of Europe’s response to the three-year-long debt crisis with Hollande’s conservative predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy, earning them the nickname ‘Merkozy’, her rapport with the Socialist Hollande has been noticeably cooler.
The pair have differed on the best approach for stemming the eurozone turbulence – with Hollande pushing for fresh spending to bolster growth, while Merkel’s pro-austerity mantra made her a detested figure in struggling EU member states but has gone down well among German voters.
Even if the two have pulled off compromises, Germany, which has fared far better in the crisis than many of its partners, has expressed hopes the French economy will return to robust growth.
Hollande recognised that his country had a “problem of competitiveness”, saying Germany – Europe’s effective paymaster – had “made efforts” while France “has lost time”.
Youth training and unemployment was a subject clearly on the minds of many of the young people attending the debate.
And Merkel and Hollande called for the creation of an exchange system for different branches of professional training, as already exists between European universities, to help all young people.
“I support us having European training programmes for the less qualified youth,” Hollande said adding it could be financed partly through the creation of a tax on financial transactions.
On Tuesday Merkel and Hollande will deliver speeches in front of about 1,000 of their countries’ lawmakers gathered in the Reichstag, while ministers from both governments are also due to hold a joint session.