The brand new French President Francois Hollande had a mission on his first stormy trip to Berlin: renegotiate the EU fiscal compact. But the German chancellor was in no mood to slow her European austerity drive.
A storm almost scuppered Francois Hollande's first trip abroad as French president. On his way to Germany, his plane was hit by lightning, and had to return to Paris for safety reasons. But Hollande completed his schedule with the same stubborn discipline that he showed at his inauguration earlier in the day, when he stood in an open-top car in the streaming Parisian rain. In a new airplane, the 57-year-old then set off for Berlin a second time, arriving only 90 minutes later than planned.
"Maybe it's a good omen for our cooperation," joked Chancellor Angela Merkel, possibly referring to the fact that the French "coup de foudre" translates not only as "thunderbolt," but also "love at first sight."
The German leader knows that she needs to forge a close working relationship with Hollande as soon as possible. But that won't be easy, in view of their considerably different political persuasions.
As state visit protocol dictates, Merkel stood awaiting her guest in front of the chancellery with a red carpet and a guard of honor. Instead of the kisses on the cheek that Hollande's predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy enjoyed, they greeted each other with a simple handshake. It was their first introduction, after Merkel had refused to receive Hollande while he was on the campaign trail. The initial exchange lasted all of two hours, during which they reportedly discussed how important good French-German relations are. The pair appeared afterwards in a joint press conference attended by a large number of journalists.
But beyond all the rhetoric about friendship, continuity, respect, and equality, it was already becoming clear how differently the two politicians see the future of Europe. Hollande said he would like to renegotiate the crucial fiscal compact that imposes budget discipline on European Union member states. "I made clear that I believe that growth is not just an empty word, but something that can be felt in reality," he said.
The president said he wants everything to be up for discussion again at both the special EU summit on May 23, and the regular meeting of European government leaders at the end of June. "Everything has to be on the table: increasing competitiveness, investment for the future, Eurobonds and funds," he said. After that, he said, it had to be decided what is legally possible.
More money for growth?
But Merkel apparently has no intention of undoing the painstakingly negotiated fiscal compact. And when it comes to a possible "growth compact," she also made clear that she had somewhat different notions than her French guest.
"Growth is a very general term," she told reporters. "Growth has to reach the people, and that's why I'm happy that we have agreed to discuss different ideas of how growth can be created. And I am sure there will be points of agreement, and maybe there will be this or that difference of opinion."
At least they do agree on the subject of Greece. Both Merkel and Hollande emphasized that they want the troubled Mediterranean economy to remain in the eurozone, and France and Germany would do everything to help Greece back to its feet.
But they also said that Athens must make good on the reform commitments it has made. In essence, Merkel and Hollande warned the Greek people to be aware that the country's new parliamentary election, called for June 17, would in effect be a referendum on the country's continued membership of the single European currency.
After the press conference, the chancellor and the president had a state dinner to look forward to, where, they said, talks would continue. Merkel said that she had enjoyed their first meeting, and was looking forward to their future cooperation. "We're aware of our responsibility to the future of Europe," she said. "And, carried by that spirit, we will find solutions."
Author: Sabine Kinkartz / bk
Editor: Andreas Illmer