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01:16, 27 June 2017 Tuesday
16:43, 08 July 2012 Sunday

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France, Germany celebrate friendship amid crisis
France, Germany celebrate friendship amid crisis

Underneath the sense of elation about the past, anxiety over the present ran high as the euro zone - the crowning legacy of Franco-German entente - struggles to restore confidence in the creditworthiness of its peripheral members.

World Bulletin/News Desk

The leaders of France and Germany joined in a symbolic celebration of unity on Sunday, hailing a relationship that has brought peace to Europe for 50 years but must now prove it can survive its most serious crisis to date.

Taking a pause from more than two years of constant crisis management that has strained Franco-German ties, President Francois Hollande welcomed his German counterpart, Chancellor Angela Merkel, to the city of Reims in eastern France.

The event replicated an encounter in 1962 between former French president Charles de Gaulle and German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, when the two leaders enshrined Franco-German ties in a city that once bore the brunt of shelling in World War One.

But while De Gaulle and Adenauer's encounter sealed a reconciliation after two wars, Sunday's meeting was held against a backdrop of acrimony over how to handle Europe's debt crisis.

"The European Union is going through a crisis - it won't be the first, it won't be the last," Hollande said in a speech by the giant double-doors of Reims' Notre Dame Cathedral, where French kings were once crowned. "But ... it forces us to move toward a new phase of development."

"Mrs Chancellor, I propose to you that we, together, walk through a new door to years that will make the friendship between our two countries even deeper," he added.

The meeting was a faithful reenactment of the 1962 encounter - down to the lunch menu. Even the rainy weather was the same.

Like their predecessors, Merkel and Hollande stood side-by-side to review a parade of French and German troops before listening to a children's choir in the cathedral's knave, where one of the most famous photographs of De Gaulle and Adenauer was taken.

Lunch, hosted by Michelin-starred French chef Philippe Mille, was a historical throwback: cold salmon, filet of beef with peas, braised carrots and potatoes, with raspberry macarons for desert. The meal was accompanied by three bottles of vintage Champagne from the region.

Undercurrent of tension

For people who witnessed the first Reims meeting, the progress since that day from friendship to a political and economic union is a subject of wonderment.

"This was a historical turning point," said Pierre Maillard, a former diplomatic advisor to the French presidency, in a documentary produced by the OFAJ Franco-German Office.

"The idea of an association of interests between our two countries was nothing short of revolutionary," he said, noting that public opinion in France at the time was stacked against the idea of a partnership with Germany.

But underneath the sense of elation about the past, anxiety over the present ran high as the euro zone - the crowning legacy of Franco-German entente - struggles to restore confidence in the creditworthiness of its peripheral members.

Greece remains a particular source of strain, with fears of a forced exit from the euro surging after Greece's new leaders admitted it was off-track in meeting terms of a bailout plan.

The crisis has exposed differences between France and Germany on how to proceed with the European project. While Merkel wants Europe to form a fiscal union that would give Brussels more oversight over national budgets, France resists any intrusion into budgetary issues.

Hollande, meanwhile, faces Germany's refusal on the idea of mutualising European debt via jointly-issued euro bonds, with German public opinion staunchly opposed to any efforts to make them underwrite European partners' debts.

Last week, as euro zone leaders sat down for talks in Brussels, tensions spilled over as President Francois Hollande declared that he was on the side of Italy and Spain in negotiations - breaking the Franco-German common front.

In subtle ways, such differences were acknowledged in speeches by the two leaders. Hollande referred to countries' need to "retain sovereignty" within the European Union, while Merkel emphasised efforts towards deepening political integration.

"We are currently going through a major challenge, which Europe must overcome," said Merkel. "The European Union that was created 20 years ago does not appear to be strong enough ... We must do what was not done 20 years ago to complete the political union."

As the celebration came to a close, a French news report provided a reminder that French and German achievements toward peace were not to be taken for granted: a few kilometres north of Reims, vandals had desecrated the graves of about 40 German World War One soldiers.

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Cyprus president seeks peace deal in Switzerland
Cyprus president seeks peace deal in Switzerland

Cypriot president Nicos Anastasiades said Monday he hopes to clinch a reunification deal laying out a new security blueprint for the divided island during a crunch summit in Switzerland this week. Anastasiades will attend United Nations-backed talks at the Alpine Crans-Montana ski resort Wednesday with "complete determination and goodwill... to achieve a desired solution", he said in a statement. He said he hopes to "abolish the anachronistic system of guarantees and intervention rights", with a deal providing for the withdrawal of the Turkish army. The eastern Mediterranean island has been divided since 1974 when Turkish troops invaded its northern third in response to an Athens-inspired coup seeking union with Greece. Turkey maintains around 35,000 troops in northern Cyprus. The so-called guarantor powers of Turkey, Britain and Greece retain the right to intervene militarily on the island. Greek and Turkish Cypriots are at odds over a new security blueprint, but their leaders are under pressure to reach an elusive peace deal. "I am going to Switzerland to participate in the Cyprus conference, with the sole aim and intent of solving the Cyprus problem," Anastasiades said. Turkish Cypriot leader Mustafa Akinci is also set to attend the summit, which is expected to last at least 10 days. Greece, Turkey and Britain will send envoys along with an observer from the European Union. UN-led talks on the island hit a wall in late May after the sides failed to agree terms to advance toward a final summit. Unlocking the security question would allow Anastasiades and Akinci to make unprecedented concessions on core issues. But they have major differences on what a new security blueprint should look like. Anastasiades's internationally recognised government, backed by Athens, seeks an agreement to abolish intervention rights, with Turkish troops withdrawing from the island on a specific timeline. Turkish Cypriots and Ankara argue for some form of intervention rights and a reduced number of troops remaining in the north. Turkish Cypriots want the conference to focus on broader issues of power-sharing, property rights and territory for the creation of a new federation. Much of the progress to date has been based on strong personal rapport between Anastasiades and Akinci, leader of the breakaway Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. But that goodwill has appeared frayed in the build-up to their meeting in Switzerland. The Greek Cypriot presidential election next February has also complicated the landscape, as has the government's search for offshore oil and gas, which Ankara argues should be suspended until the negotiations have reached an outcome.