Top European politicians and business leaders met in London to discuss a proposed 200-billion-euro stimulus plan, ahead of this week's bloc-wide summit. But Germany, Europe's largest economy, wasn't represented.
The men all said Merkel's absence wasn't meant as a snub
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and French President Nicolas Sarkozy insisted at their meeting on Monday, Dec. 8, that Europe was united on the need for further action to stimulate the global economy.
The two leaders, who were joined in talks in London by European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, dismissed media reports of differences with Germany on the need of further urgent measures, including tax cuts.
Brown, Sarkozy and Barroso said they had spoken to German Chancellor Angela Merkel on the eve of the London meeting and insisted that there was "no disagreement" on the need for a harmonized approach to the unprecedented crisis.
EU praises German contribution
"I have full confidence in the efforts that Germany is making and will make," said Barroso. "Germany is the most important European economy, and so it would be completely unreasonable to think about any plan without the active cooperation of Germany."
Merkel has recently been criticized both at home and abroad for what some have called an isolationist approach to the global financial crisis.
Merkel's popularity has suffered under the financial crisis
Though Germany has passed a 31-billion-euro ($40-billion) national stimulus package, the German chancellor has come under fire, in particular, for her reluctance to embrace a joint EU approach.
On Monday, Sarkozy defended Germany's path. He stressed that its bailout plan was "as significant" as the measures taken by France and that the fact that countries did not use the "same tools" to stimulate their economies did not mean that they disagreed.
Steinmeier irked by Merkel's absence
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, however, said he regretted Merkel's absence.
"I'll be honest. I don't think it was nice that Germany and the chancellor weren't there," he told Germany's public broadcaster ZDF.
Steinmeier also said Germany's role in tackling the financial crisis was respected throughout Europe, despite criticism from the press.
"I've been in a lot of European capitals and what you hear is different than what you see in the newspapers," he said. "What Germany is doing is being closely watched. But I can't see that other countries are doing more than we're doing in Germany."
More cooperation, less protectionism
Barroso insisted that the EU was "in the vanguard" of providing the right responses to the global downturn and urged a "strong level of coordination."
The EU's proposed stimulus package involves environmental measures
In an EU of 27 nations, there could not be a "one-size-fits-all solution" to problems as fundamental as the current global crisis, he said.
Brown urged Europe to follow the United States' example and increase the level of infrastructure investment in response to the economic crisis.
"We need to invest in a digital, low-carbon, environmentally-friendly Europe of the 21st century," said Brown. Investment now in technology, construction and public works infrastructure would ensure that the "downturn is followed by an upturn," he added.
Brown also said that a protectionist approach would "delay any recovery" and only deepen the current crisis.
Monday's meeting in London preceded a two-day EU summit in Brussels, beginning on Thursday, where both the economy and climate change are to top the agenda.
Barroso has proposed a 200-billion-euro bloc wide stimulus plan, which would include spending on low-carbon public transport, high-speed Internet connections and improvements to energy infrastructure.