France and Germany to take front stage at ‘historic times’

François Mitterrand and Helmut Kohl at Verdun in 1984.

Angela Merkel and François Hollande are to make a joint address in the European Parliament, underlining the gravity of crises facing the post-war union founded by Germany and France, officials said yesterday (21 September).

As diplomats groped for compromises that can defuse a bitter row over refugees when EU leaders meet in Brussels on Wednesday, parliamentary officials said the German chancellor and French president would speak in Strasbourg on 7 October, adding that the last such appearance, by their predecessors Helmut Kohl and François Mitterrand, came after the Berlin Wall fell in 1989.

“This is a historic visit for historically difficult times,” said parliament speaker Martin Schulz, a German Social Democrat who has sought to forge closer ties between Paris and Berlin.

“The EU is facing immense challenges and requires strong commitment by its leaders.”

Others officials said France and Germany, the driving forces of European integration after World War Two, would send a signal that the European Union, much expanded since the Cold War, must stick together in face of an array of divisive problems that have seen national frontiers closing again across the continent in response to a wave of refugees arriving from the Middle East.

Kohl and Mitterrand, respective mentors to the conservative Merkel and Socialist Hollande, forged a personal bond in the 1980s and 1990s, which saw the EU agree to create the euro currency and work to embrace former Soviet bloc states in the east.

Now questions hang over the euro following financial crisis and a new bailout for Greece, over the EU’s cohesion in its confrontation with Russia and over whether Britain, its second-biggest economy, may soon vote to quit the Union altogether.

No deal yet

Facing fierce divisions among the 28 member states ahead of a meeting on Tuesday (22 September) of interior ministers to agree responses to the migration crisis, there was little sign of optimism on Monday (21 Septemner) from the government of Luxembourg, which as holder of the EU’s rotating presidency, is trying to broker an elusive deal.

Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn was in Prague to meet ministers from the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland and Hungary, who have led resistance to Franco-German- backed plans to distribute asylum seekers around the EU according to mandatory national quotas. He said: “We still have some issues to solve. Tomorrow will be a very important day.”

>>Read: Visegrad countries trigger crisis ahead of EU refugee summit

Ministers are trying to find consensus to avoid a vote that could alienate the eastern minority and cause further division.

Diplomats in Brussels enumerated a range of possible compromises being discussed on a proposal by the EU executive to take 120,000 asylum-seekers from Italy, Greece and Hungary and relocate them in other states according to a quota system.

As Hungary has refused to take part, notably by rejecting hosting foreign EU border officials to organise relocations, some people could be moved from other countries. Some form of scheme by which governments volunteered to help, or might pay to opt out of taking in some people, was also a possibility.

EU officials said ministers will be under pressure to reach a deal before presidents and prime ministers arrive in Brussels on Wednesday afternoon (23 September) for an emergency summit on migration, at which few concrete decisions are likely to be taken.

Merkel, who pushed for the meeting and wants EU commitments to increase funding for Syrian refugees in Turkey, Jordan and elsewhere, is likely to hear criticism from the likes of Hungary’s right-wing prime minister, Viktor Orbán. He has said her effective offer last month to take in more Syrian refugees prompted a surge in the numbers making for Europe from Turkey.

France first opposed to the quota proposal, arguing that asylum was first of all a right and could not be translated into numbers.

But since Hollande finally accepted the Commission’s approach last August, France deployed efforts trying to convince other EU countries to come on board.

Hollande has in fact already compared the refugee crisis to the fall of Berlin wall.

“When the wall felt, we didn’t say close our doors to the eastern countries, we welcomed them” he said during a meeting with Mateo Renzi in mid-September.

Reelected Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras will also face close questioning on how he will work with EU agencies to tighten monitoring of the bloc’s Mediterranean frontier.

This summer, many thousands of migrants have passed through Greece unchecked, prompting other states in the passport-free Schengen zone to reimpose border controls for the first time in 20 years.

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