Last updated: February 4, 2010 6:27 pm

Merkel and Sarkozy pledge EU leadership

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Nicolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel on Thursday set their sights on practical projects to revive their flagging partnership, brushing aside suggestions that their proposals for closer co-operation lacked ambition.

The French president and German chancellor were speaking after a joint cabinet meeting in Paris where they unveiled a list of 80 “concrete ideas” for collaboration, including closer co-ordination of economic planning and financial regulation, joint research programmes and bilingual nursery schools.

The two leaders vowed to provide joint leadership of the European Union, saying they would present joint proposals to a summit of the bloc’s leaders next week intended to devise a 10-year economic reform strategy.

But their raft of proposals stopped short of tackling contentious issues in bilateral relations such as co-operation between the members of the eurozone and joint financing for big industrial projects.

“The time of grand treaties and grand declarations has given way to the practical,” Mr Sarkozy said at a press conference at the Elysée palace.

Asked why more ambitious French ideas for an EU natural gas procurement agency or for the deployment of the Franco-German brigade in Afghanistan were not included in the list of projects, he said the most important thing this was that such ideas were discussed between Paris and Berlin.

“There is no malaise, there are no hidden problems,” he insisted.

Ms Merkel said: “What characterises our co-operation is that we deliver what we promise.”

The two leaders have had a prickly relationship in recent years. Mr Sarkozy’s mercurial temperament has often put him at odds with the calmer and more conciliatory German chancellor. The latest initiative is an apparent attempt to put that behind them.

Mr Sarkozy has decided that investing in the Franco-German relationship, for all its frustrations, can pay diplomatic dividends in Europe and political dividends in France.

“Mr Sarkozy is following the course of practically every president of the fifth republic,” said François Heisbourg, adviser to the Foundation for Strategic Research, a French think-tank. “You start off in power looking to the Brits because you don’t want to be prisoner of the Franco-German embrace and because Britain has a more familiar conception of a global power. But then after a period of time and a learning curve you eventually end up back with the Germans.”

Senior officials in Berlin stressed that not only did the chancellor visit Paris on her first day in office after last year’s German election, but that Thursday marked her 100th day in the job – underlining the importance she attaches to the relationship.

Both sides are “determined to give the Franco-German motor [of European integration] new impetus”, according to a senior official. Their bilateral plans, such as promoting a cross-border “electro-mobility” programme for electric cars, are intended as prototypes for future EU schemes.

The proposals fall short of ambitious projects France floated last year in the run-up to the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall. Those included a permanent exchange of cabinet ministers and joint embassies – both blocked on “constitutional grounds”.

The French ideas were heavier on symbolism than substance, reflecting a lack of real desire on both sides for fresh industrial collaboration or for a pooling of resources in the diplomatic and military fields. Ms Merkel’s desire for an extension of existing co-operation to other areas is reflected in Thursday’s workmanlike proposals.

“It shows they are hungry, at least to show progress,” said Ulrike Guérot, head of the Berlin office of the European Council on Foreign Relations. “But the hunger is more on the French side. The French have been worried for a long time about whether Germany is still interested in Europe.”

Nonetheless, French officials believe that the scores of projects will help to underline the breadth of Franco-German co-operation and make it easier to forge common positions on a broad range of subjects, thereby increasing the two capitals’ influence over EU decision-making.

An immediate test case for the strength of co-operation will be the A400M, the Airbus military transport aircraft, which is over deadline and over budget.

The two leaders called for further talks on the programme on Thursday, saying everything should be done to find a solution. Mr Sarkozy described it as “a decisive project which must be resolved quickly”.

However, tough talks between junior ministers and company executives from EADS, Airbus’ parent company, which took place in Berlin on Thursday failed to reach an agreement. Further talks are expected to take place over the coming days.

EADS is asking for €4.4bn ($6.1bn, £3.8bn) on top of the original €20bn price tag, while the governments are offering €2bn.

Additional reporting by Gerrit Wiesmann

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