Macron visits Merkel in bid to salvage EU reform plans

French President Emmanuel Macron heads to Berlin Thursday for talks with Chancellor Angela Merkel, hoping to breathe fresh life into his grand vision for EU reforms in the face of growing German resistance.

Macron visits Merkel in bid to salvage EU reform plans
Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel. Photo: DPA.

In a sign of the low expectations for a breakthrough, Merkel said the leaders' brief meeting would be “another building block” on the road to finding “common solutions” ahead of a European Union summit in June.

The pair are due to give press statements at 1:00 pm (1100 GMT) before holding talks at the Berlin Palace, a historic site undergoing extensive reconstruction — an apt setting for discussions on Macron's plans for a post-Brexit overhaul of the bloc.

But the Frenchman's dreams of driving through the changes with Merkel by his side were dealt a blow this week when her own conservative CDU/CSU bloc raised objections to his flagship proposals for a common eurozone budget and an expansion of the EU's bailout fund.

Macron defended his bold ideas in a passionate speech to the European Parliament on Tuesday, describing eurozone reforms as “indispensable” to challenging the rise of authoritarianism and nationalism on the continent.

But observers doubted whether his lofty words changed any hearts and minds in Berlin.

“Macron must feel like a suitor who tries and tries to woo his beloved, even singing under her balcony, but is fobbed off with platitudes,” the Handelsblatt financial daily wrote.

North-South divide

Much of Berlin's resistance is rooted in deep-seated German wariness of any measures that could lead to debt pooling, or German taxpayer cash flowing to spendthrift neighbours.

And while Merkel has in the past voiced cautious support for Macron's ambitions, she has stayed vague on details.

Having just started her fourth term as chancellor, her room for manoeuvre has been limited by her bloc's weak showing in last year's general election, which saw traditional parties lose millions of voters to the far-right.

With her parliamentary majority badly reduced, Merkel can't afford a rebellion by her own MPs.

And although her centre-left coalition partners the Social Democrats are more openly pro-EU, Macron lost his loudest cheerleader when former European Parliament chief Martin Schulz stepped down as SPD leader in February.

“The French president knows very well that not all his ideas can be realized, we are now looking at what is possible,” Social Democratic Finance Minister Olaf Scholz told the Frankfurter Allgemeine daily.

Lawmakers from Merkel's CDU/CSU alliance threw down the gauntlet this week when they attached strict conditions to transforming the EU's bailout fund into a European Monetary Fund that can act as a “lender of last resort”.

Setting up such a fund would require a change to EU treaties, they wrote in a position paper, which would require the approval of each member state's parliament.

They also said national lawmakers, not the European Commission, should have the final say over any aid disbursements.

Macron's proposed eurozone investment budget meanwhile was dismissed by Merkel's party as not “a top priority” when the bloc had yet to figure out how to plug the hole left in the wider EU budget by Britain's departure.

Differences also remain on the completion of a eurozone “banking union”, generally seen as one of the least controversial issues but viewed sceptically in Berlin, in the belief that Germany would be on the hook to save fragile banks in other countries.

Ahead of Thursday's talks, Merkel distanced herself from some of Macron's pet projects, saying the changes Europe needed were not just about the single currency or the banking union — “far from it”.

“Germany can bring its own contributions” to the debate, she told reporters, singling out the need to improve the bloc's competitiveness and create a common asylum policy.

Germany is not alone in slamming the brakes on Macron's drive to bolster the eurozone.

A group of smaller northern EU countries, led by the Netherlands, have also pushed back, warning that they refuse to be “railroaded” into sweeping reforms.

Faced with these northern headwinds, France has stepped up efforts to win support from the bloc's southern countries, recently inviting Italy and Spain to help steer the reform process.

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Sleep, seaside, potato soup: What will Merkel do next?

 After 16 years in charge of Europe's biggest economy, the first thing Angela Merkel wants to do when she retires from politics is take "a little nap". But what about after that?

Outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel briefly closes her eyes and smiles at a 2018 press conference in Berlin.
Outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel briefly closes her eyes at a 2018 press conference in Berlin. Aside from plans to take "a little nap" after retiring this week, she hasn't given much away about what she might do next. Tobias SCHWARZ / AFP

The veteran chancellor has been tight-lipped about what she will do after handing over the reins to her successor Olaf Scholz on December 8th.

During her four terms in office, 67-year-old Merkel was often described as the most powerful woman in the world — but she hinted recently that she will not miss being in charge.

“I will understand very quickly that all this is now someone else’s responsibility. And I think I’m going to like that situation a lot,” she said during a trip to Washington this summer.

Famous for her stamina and her ability to remain fresh after all-night meetings, Merkel once said she can store sleep like a camel stores water.

But when asked about her retirement in Washington, she replied: “Maybe I’ll try to read something, then my eyes will start to close because I’m tired, so I’ll take a little nap, and then we’ll see where I show up.”

READ ALSO: ‘Eternal’ chancellor: Germany’s Merkel to hand over power
READ ALSO: The Merkel-Raute: How a hand gesture became a brand

‘See what happens’
First elected as an MP in 1990, just after German reunification, Merkel recently suggested she had never had time to stop and reflect on what else she might like to do.

“I have never had a normal working day and… I have naturally stopped asking myself what interests me most outside politics,” she told an audience during a joint interview with Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

“As I have reached the age of 67, I don’t have an infinite amount of time left. This means that I want to think carefully about what I want to do in the next phase of my life,” she said.

“Do I want to write, do I want to speak, do I want to go hiking, do I want to stay at home, do I want to see the world? I’ve decided to just do nothing to begin with and see what happens.”

Merkel’s predecessors have not stayed quiet for long. Helmut Schmidt, who left the chancellery in 1982, became co-editor of the weekly newspaper Die Zeit and a popular commentator on political life.

Helmut Kohl set up his own consultancy firm and Gerhard Schroeder became a lobbyist, taking a controversial position as chairman of the board of the Russian oil giant Rosneft.

German writer David Safier has imagined a more eccentric future for Merkel, penning a crime novel called Miss Merkel: Mord in der Uckermark  that sees her tempted out of retirement to investigate a mysterious murder.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel forms her trademark hand gesture, the so-called “Merkel-Raute” (known in English as the Merkel rhombus, Merkel diamond or Triangle of Power). (Photo by Tobias SCHWARZ / AFP)

Planting vegetables
Merkel may wish to spend more time with her husband Joachim Sauer in Hohenwalde, near Templin in the former East Germany where she grew up, and where she has a holiday home that she retreats to when she’s weary.

Among the leisure activities she may undertake there is vegetable, and especially, potato planting, something that she once told Bunte magazine in an interview in 2013 that she enjoyed doing.

She is also known to be a fan of the volcanic island of D’Ischia, especially the remote seaside village of Sant’Angelo.

Merkel was captured on a smartphone video this week browsing the footwear in a Berlin sportswear store, leading to speculation that she may be planning something active.

Or the former scientist could embark on a speaking tour of the countless universities from Seoul to Tel Aviv that have awarded her honorary doctorates.

Merkel is set to receive a monthly pension of around 15,000 euros ($16,900) in her retirement, according to a calculation by the German Taxpayers’ Association.

But she has never been one for lavish spending, living in a fourth-floor apartment in Berlin and often doing her own grocery shopping.

In 2014, she even took Chinese Premier Li Keqiang to her favourite supermarket in Berlin after a bilateral meeting.

So perhaps she will simply spend some quiet nights in sipping her beloved white wine and whipping up the dish she once declared as her favourite, a “really good potato soup”.