Gulf widens between grouchy Merkel and gloating Sarkozy

Sunday, June 6, 2010
By Paul Martin

Matthew Campbell
June 6, 2010

ALL eyes will be on Germany’s Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, when they meet tomorrow to try to reassure the world that the famous Franco-German “motor” of Europe has not blown a gasket.

Relations between the two countries have reached their lowest ebb in decades and the diminutive French leader and the matronly German can hardly disguise the irritation they feel for each other.

The days are over when they would exchange pleasantries and grin — albeit through gritted teeth. According to one account, they sat in grim silence through a recent lunch in Paris, speaking only to aides.

A French diplomat referred to “a very tense climate” and held out little hope for a thaw in the frost tomorrow when Sarkozy is expected to try, yet again, to convince his sceptical German counterpart that the European Union needs its own economic government.

The lack of physical chemistry may have played its role in the rift: Merkel has always seemed allergic to Sarkozy’s body language and tactile Gallic approach. It seems to work well for him in Paris. But the German leader dislikes being kissed and patted by the pint-sized French president.

She also finds distasteful his habit of crowing about successes and has taken to mimicking the frenetic posturing of the “little Frenchman” in meetings with aides.

“In this government one can openly speak against France and not be punished for it,” a source close to Merkel told German reporters. “During [the chancellorship of Helmut] Kohl that was unthinkable.”

Kohl, who presided over the costly reunification of the communist East and West Germany, famously held hands with François Mitterrand, the Socialist French president, to symbolise the partnership at the heart of Europe that EU experts describe as essential for getting anything done.

By contrast, today’s spectacle of discord is horrifying to Europe’s surviving elder statesmen. Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, another former French president, said what was needed was more “intimacy” between the two. He and Helmut Schmidt, a former German chancellor, put their names to an essay warning that without the Franco-German marriage, Europe was doomed.

The truth is that Europe’s power couple have been leading increasingly separate lives since the abyss deepened between them over how to tackle the crisis of indebtedness that threatens to sink the euro and with it the EU’s dreams of more integration.

When Merkel was eventually pushed by the French into agreement on a bailout for Greece, it infuriated German voters still resentful at how much they had to pay for reunification and unwilling to fork out again for the profligate Greeks. The chancellor’s popularity plummeted.

Since then Sarkozy has gloated about the wider eurozone rescue plan — including a fund for further bailouts if needed — being a “95% French” affair, further annoying Merkel. Nor is she impressed with Sarkozy’s calls for a “council of the eurozone” for regulating the EU’s economy.

In such a body, France might be expected to hold sway. After criticism at home for letting herself be kicked around by the French, Merkel is expected to put her foot down if Sarkozy raises the idea at their talks in Berlin.

Another item under discussion is the “taskforce” for handling the crisis. Its members, a group of EU finance ministers, will meet in Luxembourg tomorrow under the supervision of Herman van Rompuy, Europe’s president.

One question is whether to establish “budget imbalance indicators” for rooting out bad spending habits. That may be aimed as much at Germany as it is at the Mediterranean’s big spenders, or “Pigs”, the acronym for Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain. The French have been critical of the big surpluses racked up by Germany’s export-led economy, suggesting that instead of saving up money the state should spend it to stimulate growth.

Germany does not seem to enjoy taking lessons from the French, however. In Berlin they grumble about Paris using a network of French officials strategically placed in high offices of the EU to further France’s own interests rather than those of the EU.

When the European Central Bank, headed by Jean-Claude Trichet, a Frenchman, spent £20 billion buying up Greek bonds, it was assumed to be part of a “plot” to help the French banks. These are among the most heavily exposed to Greek debt and were greatly relieved by the intervention.

Der Spiegel magazine summed up the anti-French mood recently by describing Sarkozy as a “hyperactive egomaniac”.

The German press has been no more charitable to Merkel. Her woes on the European stage have been accompanied by a loss of authority at home. This was exemplified last week when Ursula von der Leyen, the labour minister, lost the race to be Germany’s next president after the unexpected resignation of Horst Köhler.

Von der Leyen, Merkel’s friend, was her preferred candidate for the largely ceremonial post but failed to garner enough support among their centre-right party’s conservatives who look increasingly askance at the chancellor’s fumbling. Der Spiegel called Merkel a “grouchy ditherer”.

Tomorrow she will smile for the cameras when meeting Sarkozy but the mutual irritation is not auspicious for Franco-German relations. Or for the euro.

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