Merkel meets Macron over EU reform drive

French President Emmanuel Macron and Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel arrive at a European Union heads of state informal meeting in Brussels, Belgium, Feb 23, 2018.
French President Emmanuel Macron and Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel arrive at a European Union heads of state informal meeting in Brussels, Belgium, Feb 23, 2018. PHOTO: REUTERS

PARIS (AFP) - Days after securing her fourth term as Germany's leader, Chancellor Angela Merkel travelled to Paris to meet French President Emmanuel Macron, but their push to reform the European Union was met with warnings from smaller members of the bloc.

Macron has called for a major reform drive to reinvigorate the EU and deepen cooperation at a time of rising populist challenges, with proposals that include a common eurozone finance minister and budget.

Merkel has given a cautious welcome to his ideas, but had been hamstrung for nearly six months by tortuous talks to form a coalition government, depriving Macron of a key pillar of support.

Her whistle-stop visit to Paris after her re-election drew a sharp response from Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, who told Berlin and Paris not to ignore the concerns of other EU states.

"Of course the German government can meet the French government without us being there," Rutte told Germany's Spiegel magazine.

"But that doesn't mean that we and other EU countries agree with everything the Germans and French agree on. We won't just nod along to everything."

Finance ministers from countries including Denmark, Ireland, Sweden and the Netherlands had already called last week for more modest goals, such as completing the eurozone banking union, instead of "far-reaching proposals" for change.

For Macron, however, who made overhauling European institutions a key campaign promise last year, Merkel's return to the helm of EU heavyweight Germany comes not a moment too soon.

"It's certainly a day Macron has long been waiting for," said Sebastien Maillard of the Jacques Delors Institute, noting a "shared sense of urgency" for both leaders ahead of European Parliament elections next year.

'Good signal for Europe' 

Macron hopes to win over Merkel on his push for a post-Brexit shake-up, including a eurozone budget to help cushion economic shocks and a European "rapid reaction force" to work with national armies.

"We are ready to reach some agreements" on EU reforms, French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire said Friday (March 16) after meeting his new German counterpart Olaf Scholz to prepare for a eurozone summit next week.

"We're here and we are going to get to work to meet the challenges we face," Scholz said, calling Macron's proposals "a very good signal for Europe."

But finding common ground between France and Germany - let alone the other EU members - is likely to prove elusive on several key issues.

Most tricky will be a meeting of minds on reforming the eurozone, not least Macron's call for a budget that could help member states when they run into trouble.

"The big question is how much money should be invested in the eurozone... Not to mention the question of a eurozone finance minister, which isn't likely to go down well in Germany," Sabine von Oppeln, a political scientist at the Free University of Berlin.

Merkel had already reiterated this week that Berlin remains opposed to any mutualisation of debt in Europe, in which the debt loads of individual countries would be spread across the bloc.

And on Friday, she said that although Germany is willing to pay more into the EU budget to fill the gap once Britain leaves the bloc, it wouldn't be giving a blank check.

"We said in our coalition agreement that we would be prepared to pay a bit more into the budget. Of course that doesn't mean that any and all wishes will be fulfilled," she said after meeting Sweden's Prime Minister Stefan Lofven.

Staving off euroscepticism

But among the issues where France and Germany can reach a shared position, Maillard cited a new push to confront the migrant crisis that has rocked the continent, and more effective taxation of digital economy giants.

"The two countries are well aware that this theme will be at the centre of the coming European elections," he said, and hope to stem the advance of eurosceptic parties in several member states.

"It's an area where they can come together and show that the situation is under control."