France's new president François Hollande arrived in Berlin for his first meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel only hours after his inauguration yesterday (15 May). The two expressed broad agreement over the necessity to kick-start the European economy but they also had to acknowledge differences over their concepts of growth.
Hollande's first trip to Berlin started on the wrong foot as lightning hit the plane of the French president, forcing him to return to Paris and take a smaller jet, which finally made it to Berlin.
Merkel had her own odd interpretation of the event, which attracted a flurry of comments on social media: "Maybe it is a good sign," she said at the beginning of a joint press conference in Berlin, reports euractiv.de.
The two leaders made visible efforts to demonstrate their unity in front of the international press. Hollande had decided to go to Berlin only hours after he was inaugurated as France’s first socialist president in 17 years, aiming to demonstrate the solidity of the Franco-German relationship.
Hollande: 'I want to renegotiate what has been agreed'
But the French President could not resist alluding to the fact that Merkel refused to meet him during his election campaign, saying he wanted to know Chancellor Merkel on a personal level.
Hollande also added to tensions over the German-inspired EU fiscal discipline treaty by saying it wasn't for Berlin to decide alone on the direction of the European Union.
In Berlin, Hollande made clear that he would stick to his campaign promise to renegotiate the EU fiscal pact and add growth components to it, setting himself on a collision course with Merkel, who has already made clear the treaty was not up for renegotiation.
"I said it during my election campaign and I say it again now as president that I want to renegotiate what has been agreed to include a growth dimension," Hollande told a joint news conference with Merkel at the Chancellery in the German capital.
The French President's campaign promise for a "growth agenda" has been a hot topic in Germany. Only hours before Hollande landed in Berlin, the opposition Social Democrats (SPD) – led by Sigmar Gabriel, Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Peer Steinbrück – presented their vision for Europe in a programme titled: "The way out of the crisis – envisioning growth and employment in Europe".
The main message of the three Social Democrats was somewhat surprising – they don't question Merkel's fiscal pact. "The fiscal pact is not going to be the centre of our negotiations," Gabriel stated. "It is going to be about adding growth impulses to blank fiscal policy," Steinbrück added, according to euractiv.de. Their hope is that Hollande's election will help them ascertain a common growth agenda.
Differences on growth
But Merkel also sought to paper over differences by showing her receptiveness to a debate on growth, saying Franco-German unity will be key to reaching agreement at a European summit in June dedicated to growth.
"Growth has to feed through to the people. And that's why I'm happy that we'll discuss different ideas on how to achieve growth," Merkel said.
In fact, Merkel and Hollande appear to differ widely on the subject. "Growth is a very general concept," Merkel said at the press conference yesterday. There have been "slightly different perceptions" on the topic, she admitted after a one-hour long meeting with Hollande.
Having different positions was nothing extraordinary in Franco-German relations and in the European Union but it was no secret that Merkel and Hollande belonged to different parties, Merkel said.
Hollande, for his part, played on language differences. "Even when speaking French, you are able to get your ideas across to a German Chancellor," he said.
Jean-Marc Ayrault, the newly-appointed French Prime Minister, might prove instrumental in that respect. Hollande's trusted ally is a former German teacher and as such very familiar with the Teutonic culture.