Is the Franco-German union heading for divorce?
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An attack by French Socialists on German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s ‘selfish austerity’, revealed in a leaked draft memo on European policy, could be a sign that the long-standing Franco-German partnership has reached a new low.
The close relationship between France and Germany has long been the driving force behind eurozone policy, with the two countries presenting a united front on many of the significant challenges facing Europe.
But last week’s attack on German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s continued insistence on austerity in the eurozone, suggests that the unlikely marriage between the two countries - so often historical foes - could be on the verge of ending in a messy divorce.
On Friday, a draft document on Europe released by François Hollande’s Socialist Party slated Merkel for being "selfish" in her drive for eurozone austerity.
It also accused Germany’s conservative Chancellor of being obsessed with "Berlin's trade balance and her electoral future".
Politicians on both sides have since moved to downplay the incident, with German government spokesman Steffen Seibert on Monday insisting German-French collaboration in Europe remains “essential”. Meanwhile, French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault took to Twitter to try to soothe tensions, saying that friendship between the two countries is “indispensable” to the future of Europe.
However, others within the two countries’ respective governments have refused to toe the line, hinting that the divide may be more significant than leaders of both Germany and France would like to admit.
In his blog on Sunday, Claude Bartolone, the President of France’s National Assembly, reiterated a call for a “confrontation” with Germany over European economic policy, while Philipp Missfelder, spokesperson for Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, described the comments in the Socialist Party’s report as “insolence by the French Socialists”.
“Germany cannot be held responsible for the state of the French economy. I am angry that our closest ally would criticise us like this,” he commented.
At the heart of the friction between the eurozone’s two biggest economies lies a growing difference in opinion on the best way of dragging Europe out of its economic slump.
Germany has stuck fast to a policy of pressuring debt-laden governments to rein in ballooning deficits and focus on fiscal consolidation.
However, with Europe’s economic troubles showing no signs of abating, not least in France where growth has come to a standstill and unemployment is at record highs, faith in an austerity-driven recovery is quickly evaporating.
Relations at post-war low
“There has been increasing recognition that the kind of policies pursued have harmed as much as healed and that this is the reason Europe is not emerging from the crisis," Hugo Brady of the Centre for European Reform in Brussels told the AFP news agency.
Furthermore, Germany’s comparative economic strength has allowed it to increasingly dictate eurozone fiscal policy, which may also have strained relations with France.
"Relations are probably at a post-war low," continued Brady. "The French are insecure over the state of their economy, while the Germans are over-confident about theirs. So they don't have anything to say to each other. That's the biggest single problem the eurozone has right now."
But France is not the only eurozone country to grow increasingly bold in its rejection of German-led austerity, leaving Merkel and Germany at risk of becoming increasingly isolated.
Italy is the latest example, where new Prime Minister Enrico Letta on Monday promised in his inaugural speech to parliament that his coalition government would focus on growth rather than budget cuts.
"Italy is dying from austerity alone. Growth policies cannot wait," he said.
Letta makes his first official trip abroad as Prime Minister on Tuesday and, perhaps as a sign of France’s increasingly junior status in the Franco-German partnership, he will not be heading to Paris to discuss common ground with fellow leftist Hollande.
Instead, Letta will travel to Berlin to take his anti-austerity push direct to Angela Merkel.