German Chancellor Merkel and French President Hollande hold a meeting ahead of the EU summit in Bratislava, as they routinely do. But this time, there is a lot more at stake than ever before.
The driving force in charge of dealing with Europe's biggest crises used to be the axis between Germany and France. However, it would appear that its engine is no longer able to jump-start. Paris and Berlin no longer share the same commonalities and goals they once did, as new blocks are forming across the EU, and the economy fails to show progress in southern Europe - not to mention the Brexit vote.
Nevertheless, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollange will still attempt to agree on their position during their meeting in Paris, held ahead of the EU summit in Bratislava later in the weak, in order to at least keep up a semblance of unity.
There are a number of shared initiatives, which the meeting in Paris is bound to focus on. Differences will likely be downplayed. The defense union, which both Germany and France have been working on for a long time, will probably be highlighted as a major success, though it is uncertain how much of the progress will be presented to the public at this point: the defense plan includes the establishment of joint headquarter and increased collaboration in military procurement, logistics and financing.
Last month, Germany and France's interior minister had already drawn attention to a project designed to improve domestic security. But there is more at stake when it comes to military collaboration than what meets eye. The initiative also aims at diffusing the kind of fears that have led to the latest wave of EU skepticism. The European Union wants to prove that it can defend and control its borders competently.
Chancellor Merkel is less than happy about the way things currently are in Europe. She held a series of meetings with heads of a number of Eastern European countries in anticipation of the EU summit. However, they yielded limited results and were overall perceived as frosty. Merkel's EU, which is based on Western influences, is heading toward increased confrontation with the Visegrad states.
There is also another block against Merkel growing in the south, created by, of all people, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras. This "Club Med" consisting of Mediterranean nations wants to fight against the German notions of austerity and stability, hoping to negotiate ways to increase spending. The southern countries also demand more solidarity, by collectivizing their debts and introducing a pan-European brand of unemployment insurance - in addition to other such programs.
French President Hollande also attended the "Club Med" meeting earlier in September, but tried to come across as more subdued when it came to discussing perceived mistakes perpetrated by Germany. Merkel could likely regard Hollande's participation at the event as an act of provocation, since France has been given carte blanche to increase its own debts by increasing public spending.
But Merkel needs Hollande as her ally, as her sphere of influence in Europe is growing weaker. While Hollande's political career is undoubtedly nearing its end - and Berlin is very much aware of this - Germany continues to hang on to the idea of keeping up the appearance of the Franco-German friendship still growing strong. Anything less could prove to be fatal.
Hollande: saving face
French President Hollande is a lame duck. There is no way he could win the presidential elections in May 2017, as his popularity ratings have tanked to an all-time low. Yet Hollande remains defiant, trying to do business as usual and keep up the act of being a significant head-of-state in Europe. Hollande is trying his best to show a semblance of a functioning government during these last months of his term, for which he needs Merkel's help. Her approval ratings are also proving to be problematic, but she can still pass as popular compared to Hollande's performance.
The European Union has reduced its objectives to simply keeping together whatever remains. Typically Franco-German projects designed to increase EU responsibilities or promote further expansion of the Eurozone have meanwhile moved to the backburner.
There is one remaining endeavor that Merkel and Hollande actually do need each other for: saving Matteo Renzi. Germany and France are willing to do anything to stabilize the Italian prime minister and keep him in power. This largely depends on whether his centre-left Democratic Party will come out on top at the end of a referendum on amending the Italian Constitution due to be held later in the year.
The consequences could be far-reaching should the rival Cinque-Stelle Party win the referendum. Following the UK Brexit vote, the European Union could then begin to face an "Italeave" situation which would indisputably be its death.
Merkel and Hollande know fully well what really is at stake here and rely on each other's support.