Berlin and Paris show new resolve in tragedy

Chancellor Angela Merkel and President François Hollande hold joint cabinet meeting in Berlin

Joint news conference: German chancellor Angela Merkel  and French president François Hollande   yesterday. Photograph: Bernd Von Jutrczenka/EPA

Joint news conference: German chancellor Angela Merkel and French president François Hollande yesterday. Photograph: Bernd Von Jutrczenka/EPA

 

Chancellor Angela Merkel and President François Hollande held a joint cabinet meeting in Berlin yesterday and vowed to work closer on bilateral economic reforms and to drive forward common defence with a European Union drone project.

Amid lingering shock over January’s Charlie Hebdo massacre and last week’s Germanwings crash in the French Alps, security and anti-terrorism measures were top of the agenda yesterday.

And, at a joint press conference, the two leaders from competing EU political camps presented a grim but united front amid continued uncertainty over the EU’s future with Greece – and with Russia.

“The first three months of 2015 were a test, one in which we have moved closer together,” said Dr Merkel. She thanked Mr Hollande and his government for their assistance since flight 9525 crashed a week ago in the French Alps, killing 150 people – half of whom were German nationals. Dr Merkel reserved special thanks for the “unbelievably big hearts” of tireless recovery workers and locals in Seyne-les-Alpes who hosted families of the victims.

“They have shown in inimitable fashion what Franco- German friendship means,” said Dr Merkel.

Mr Hollande suggested the tragedies had moved the Franco-German relationship to a new level of “fraternalism”, highlighting the need for closer co-ordination of anti-terrorism and security measures.

Tighter travel security In particular he called for a registration of all people moving in the passport-free Schengen area, and tighter security measures for both air travel and pilots.

Besides recalling their respective tragedies, Dr Merkel and Mr Hollande reiterated their determination to build on the second Minsk ceasefire agreement between Ukraine and Russian-backed separatist that they helped broker in an all-night session last month.

After three despairing years, Paris-Berlin watchers said yesterday the meteorological end of winter has finally seen springtime return to the Franco-German relationship.

“Ukraine suddenly brought the question of war and peace back into the room, making us realise this was about our common freedom and security,” said Claire Demesmay, analyst at Berlin’s DGAP think tank. “Suddenly we realised that differences of opinion that sometimes arise are irrelevant.”

Mr Hollande ran for office in 2012 by promising an end to the Merkellian austerity drive in Europe with a new era of investment and fiscal stimulus. When, in office, he found this was easier said than done, Paris and Berlin entered a political stalemate. The centre-left Frenchman and centre-right German chancellor showed little in common except a determination not to give ground to the other. Berlin intransigence on austerity was met with Parisian procrastination on economic reforms.

Concessions

Yesterday, with reforms under way back home, Mr Hollande knew to avoid calls for further concessions in Berlin. German public opinion towards France is already stretched after a series of Brussels deadline extensions for Paris to bring its budget into line with EU fiscal rules.

As the two accentuated the positive, a French journalist punctured their steely resolve by asking Mr Hollande how he planned to react to his fourth electoral drubbing in weekend regional elections.

The president insisted he wouldn’t comment on domestic French politics except that “support for investment and pushing social justice” was the best response to extremism and populism.

Dr Merkel refused to follow his line, saying the best answer to political populism was sustainable bilateral and European projects of clear, practical benefit for citizens.

On Greece, both played down the visit of Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras to Moscow and insisted sooner was better than later for Athens to present reforms and free up outstanding EU-IMF loans.

Finally, in an uncertain world, Mr Hollande and Dr Merkel said the time had come to have a European defence drone – backed by Berlin, Paris and Rome – to be in action by 2025. The French leader said the drones, combined with new European satellites, would grant the EU a new independence to gather its own information and images from conflict zones.

“Pictures are power,” said Mr Hollande. “Whoever has the pictures and knows the situation can act best.”