Unwanted Advances Berlin Rebuffs Sarkozy's Attempts to Deepen Franco-German Cooperation
French President Nicolas Sarkozy is trying to play up France's friendship with Germany, partly in an attempt to distract attention from domestic issues. But officials in Berlin fear that the problems between the two countries are actually increasing.
At least there is one person who feels enthusiastic about Germany's new coalition government of Angela Merkel's center-right Christian Democrats and the business friendly Free Democratic Party. It was very good news that Germany plans to lower taxes, French President Nicolas Sarkozy cooed on Wednesday evening in the inner courtyard of the Elysee Palace in Paris. "It will enable France and Germany to cooperate even more closely," he said. Then the president grabbed the hand of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, holding on as if he would never let it go.
The chancellor was considerably more reserved on that evening in Paris, the evening after her swearing-in ceremony. Research, education and growth, she said, were issues on which Germany and France would cooperate more closely in the future. She quickly extracted her hand from Sarkozy's grip. She said nothing about taxes -- for good reason.
The French delight over the tax policy for which Merkel has reaped bushels of criticism at home is only one of the many oddities in the relationship between the two countries. Paris hopes that Berlin will now give up its goal of budget consolidation. In Berlin, on the other hand, officials insist that this is precisely not what is planned. Once again, there is an odd asymmetry to Franco-German relations, and not just on financial matters.
Cultivating the Relationship
France wants to celebrate the friendship between the two countries with grand gestures and copious symbolism. Since the financial crisis, Sarkozy has realized that he has no choice but to cultivate a good relationship with Merkel.
He had long hoped to enlist the help of the British to achieve his political goals. But London's wavering over reforms of the financial markets has destroyed that plan. Sarkozy now knows that there is no getting around Merkel.
The French president also hopes that, by highlighting the Franco-German friendship, he can cover up his political problems at home. Sarkozy's alleged attempt to procure an important government job for his son has triggered resentment among the French public.
There is even discussion in Paris about updating the Elysee Treaty, which has until now regulated the close cooperation between the two countries. Berlin, on the other hand, would prefer to take a more low-key approach. Merkel has little interest in grand gestures. The chancellor, who is famous for her cautious nature, would prefer to see concrete action being taken.
Officials at the Chancellery in Berlin know they will have to somehow react to Sarkozy's charm offensive. This is one of the reasons why the Germans are giving the French president a chance to shine in the spotlight. On Nov. 9, he is expected to attend ceremonies in Berlin to mark the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Two days later, Merkel will travel to Paris to take part in ceremonies commemorating the end of World War I. The president and the chancellor, hand in hand at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier beneath the Arc de Triomphe -- now that is the kind of gesture Sarkozy likes.
If the French had their way, there would even more symbolism. They have been bombarding the Germans with new proposals for weeks. Wouldn't it be nice if there were a minister for Germany in the French cabinet and a minister for France in Berlin? Or perhaps a German minister could attend French cabinet meetings, and vice-versa? And why shouldn't there be a shared German-French holiday?
The officials at the Chancellery became more and more irritated with every new idea. "What is a French minister supposed to do in our cabinet?" members of Merkel's staff ask. "Help decide on tax laws?"
There is a complete absence of euphoria on the part of the Germans. In particular, they are concerned about Sarkozy's tendency to pile up new debt. The French national debt is now up to 77 percent of the country's gross domestic product. Next year, Sarkozy plans to issue a new government bond worth billions, which will drive up the deficit even further.
Because this violates the European Union's Stability and Growth Pact, which sets limits on the amount of debt that eurozone members can incur, Sarkozy would prefer to permanently circumvent its criteria. This explains why he is so pleased about the new German government's plans for tax cuts which will be financed through new borrowing. He hopes that Berlin will gradually come round to supporting his position.
But that, Merkel claims, is precisely what she does not want. "We will not allow the Stability Pact to be undermined," say Chancellery officials. During her meeting at the Elysee Palace, Merkel reminded Sarkozy about the recent "debt ceiling" amendment to the German constitution, under which the federal government will have to limit its structural deficit to 0.35 percent of GDP as of 2016. Even if I wanted to change things, I couldn't, is the message Merkel was trying to convey.
The German government is also displeased over the fact that Sarkozy plans to use the billions that the new bond issue will bring in to support French companies in particular. However, the German arguments don't exactly seem very convincing, given the dubious German state aid for the troubled carmaker Opel, which was criticized by the European Commission because of the possibility it could favor German plants.
But Merkel wasn't very interested in talking about their differences last week in Paris. Instead, she listened politely to Sarkozy's proposals for closer cooperation and apologized for not having reacted to them yet. She explained to Sarkozy that she had been too involved in the recent election campaign to respond -- a statement that wasn't entirely true.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan