Leaders seek to rev up ties beyond Berlin and Paris to spur economic growth and reduce the countries’ deficit spending, which is on track to violate EU limits for the third straight year.
Germany and France want to tune up Europe's economic engine.
German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and French President Jean-Pierre Raffarin met in the southeastern French city of Poitiers on Monday evening for a regular series of Franco-German consultations.
But the meeting’s agenda could not have been more different. Rather than the usual high-level diplomatic talks, the summit focused on ways to increase regional cooperation between the two countries.
The two-day summit marks the first time senior officials from Germany’s 16 states have met with their counterparts from France’s 22 regions. Schröder and Raffarin have announced joint growth programs intended to help Germany and France lower their budget deficits, which are expected to exceed European Union limits both this year and next.
"We say to our friends in Brussels that France and Germany will pursue growth policies together and nobody will come between us, and nobody really wants to anyway," Schröder said Monday. "We are signaling in friendship and mindful of our commitments our common will (to privilege growth), directed against nobody, in favor of both our countries and therefore Europe as a whole."
Schröder also defined the agenda for what he described as the most-important dimensions of foreign policy for the Franco-German partnership in the coming year. He said the team must work toward facilitating peace in the world, to promote the further expansion and unification of the European Union "for our good old Europe," and to surmount the economic difficulties in both Germany and France that have placed them at the bottom of the EU heap in economic growth despite their status as Europe's biggest economies and most-populous lands.
Meeting in Raffarin’s hometown
French President Raffarin initiated the idea for the summit in his hometown. Before his rise to the presidency, Raffarin served as president of the Poitou-Charente region, and regional elections are slated for Poitiers in March. Raffarin’s photo ops with prominent foreign politicians will do little to harm local elections.
But Raffarin is looking for more than airtime in Poitiers. He’s a fervent proponent of decentralizing the French government with its complete focus in Paris. Further limiting Paris‘ power is a political labor of love, one he has pursued relentlessly despite opposition within his own ranks. His first and only success, so far, in that regard came in March, as he succeeded in anchoring the regions in the constitution. The constitution now states that the French government is "decentralized," and the devolution gives regions greater autonomy. France is discussing with Germany ways it might model its devolution of regions on the federalized system of states in Germany, the French news agency AFP reports.
Currently the regions have more power over economic development, tourism, roads, culture and extended education, but Raffarin is seeking greater delegation of authority. But few observers believe the French regions will become as powerful as the German states, or Bundesländer as they are called here, not even Raffarin.
"A French region will never be completely comparable to a German Land," he said.
Still, the changes do make it easier for French regions to work more closely with German states, and now Raffarin is calling for the successful ties between the highest levels of the German and French governments to be replicated and the regional and local level. The governments intend to sign agreements in Poitiers that will increase ties and improve cross-border mobility between regions.
Exchanges and regional partnerships
Concrete proposals include closer cooperation in research, education and the trades through teacher, student and worker exchanges. The leaders also called for a 50 percent increase in the number of German and French students who learn each others‘ languages within 10 years, as well as the drafting of a common history book to be used in schools in both countries.
The leaders signed the first of a series of such contracts on Monday, inking a partnership deal between France’s Poitou-Charentes region and the German state of Mecklenburg West-Pomerania.
A day earlier, Raffarin also sought to assuage concerns of EU countries that fear the German-Franco partnership has grown too powerful. In an interview with the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper, he extended an open invitation for other EU members to participate in the regular Berlin-Paris consultations.
"The Franco-German relationship is a motor," he said, "but we are ready to add other cylinders."