April 25, 2008 4:27 am

Paris and Berlin in bid for closer ties

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France and Germany are seeking to heal recent strains between their leaders by strengthening co-operation in four sensitive policy areas as Paris prepares to take over the rotating European Union presidency on July 1.

The French and German governments have set up joint expert groups to handle agriculture, the car industry, climate change and security issues during France’s six months in the chair.

Some EU diplomats see the creation of the groups as a sign of Germany’s desire to keep tabs on President Nicolas Sarkozy, who earned a reputation for impulsiveness in Berlin soon after his French poll victory last May.

Mr Sarkozy’s public criticisms of the European Central Bank did not go down well with Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, a firm believer in ECB independence from political pressure.

Trouble continued with Mr Sarkozy’s push for a Mediterranean Union which, as originally conceived, would have grouped EU and non-EU countries with a Mediterranean shoreline, but would have excluded Germany and risked fragmenting the EU.

However, Mr Sarkozy and Ms Merkel struck a compromise last month over his Mediterranean initiative. Diplomats say the establishment of the four new working groups is another sign of the enduring strength of Franco-German ties.

The bilateral relationship is the traditional motor of EU integration and is buttressed by layer upon layer of co-operation among government ministers, politicians, bureaucrats and non-governmental experts.

Paris and Berlin are at pains to reassure EU capitals that the activities of the four working groups “are not directed at other countries” and do not represent an attempt to dictate policy to the EU’s other 25 nations.

Officials from other states say they are relaxed about the Franco-German initiative, partly because they were alerted in advance.

“It’s been done before,” one diplomat said of the joint groups. “Good co-operation and a good atmosphere between France and Germany have generally been good for the EU as a whole.”

A senior EU official cited a commonly heard piece of wisdom in Brussels to the effect that, since the EU’s embrace of new eastern European members in 2004, Franco-German co-operation was a necessary but no longer a sufficient condition for the EU to move forward.

For some countries, the devil will be in the detail. For example, the UK advocates far-reaching changes to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy and its multi-billion-euro farm subsidies, but the early signs are that Paris and Berlin are forging a common line against big reforms after 2013, when the EU’s present seven-year budget regime ends.

On climate change and the car industry, Germany would welcome French support for its view that Germany’s big carmakers should not be penalised more than manufacturers of smaller cars in France, Italy and other countries, as the EU imposes legal limits on carbon dioxide emissions from vehicles.

Security and defence are a murkier area, according to some diplomats in Brussels, because even Berlin appears unsure precisely what measures Paris may propose during its EU presidency.

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