Heading into yet another E.U. summit meeting to try to bring an end to the euro-zone crisis, the German chancellor and the French president — “Merkozy” — have been doing their best to keep their act together. Only this Monday in Paris, the leaders of the Continent’s two strongest economies came up with an agreement over a broad, prescriptive plan that they will put to other E.U. members in Brussels.
The plan calls for more fiscal discipline, changes to the existing European treaties to include common oversight over national budgets, and sanctions against overspending countries. Without going into technicalities or measuring the concessions each made to the other, it is clear that Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy share the same political goal: They want to prove that the Franco-German couple performs harmoniously and remains the engine of European integration like never before.
Yet, despite these leaders’ efforts, the narratives of the serial drama of the euro-zone crisis have become increasingly different in Berlin and Paris.
In Paris, even pundits hostile to Sarkozy have given him credit for his role. Newspapers critical of him say he embodies the Europe of political will, while Merkel stands for the Europe of rules. Without Sarkozy, would the chancellor have realized that the fate of the euro is more important than her political coalition, as she seemed tempted to think last summer? Has he not pressed her for faster reaction, more aware than she is of the urgency of the matter?
It took endless discussions over the phone and many platters of cheese — Merkel’s soft spot but a torture for Sarkozy, who watches his waistline — but the French believe the Elysée has managed to keep Germany on the European track. They view the Paris-Berlin relationship as the central piece of the European construct and the Merkozy couple as its prime contractors.
In Berlin, the story runs differently. Even critics of Merkel’s domestic performance acknowledge her skill at taking nothing for granted, like the scientist she once was, taking her time before defining her position, imposing her own pace on her ebullient French partner whose weak economy has no leverage over German policies.
The debate has been most intense over the share that German taxpayer should pay for others. It has revealed a clear generational difference, with older politicians and commentators reminding of their country’s specific duty to a European integration process built on the ruins of World War II, while others are prone to openly celebrate Germany’s continental predominance.
“Today, suddenly, the whole of Europe speaks German!” exclaimed Volker Kauder, the Christian-Democrat parliamentary leader, at the last party congress. A crony of the chancellor’s, Kauder was expressing the kind of pride and confidence that former Chancellor Helmut Kohl once warned against: “We do not want a German Europe, but an European Germany.”
The fear of a German Europe: That is precisely the theme Mr. Sarkozy’s opponents are hitting as the French presidential campaign gathers speed. The Socialist candidate, François Hollande, has accused Sarkozy of “yielding too much to Berlin,” meaning that the Elysée hasn’t been able to convince Merkel to change the independent status of the European Central Bank or allow for euro bonds. To commentators, Merkel’s inflexibility on these issues has thrown the Paris-Berlin relationship off-balance. Some of Hollande’s party comrades have even gone so far as to denounce Merkel as another Bismarck, and to compare Sarkozy to Édouard Daladier bowing to Hitler in Munich in 1938.
The very day the Merkozy couple announced that they had struck a deal on a plan for stricter European economic governance, Standard & Poor’s warned 15 of the 17 euro-zone countries that they were vulnerable to a ratings downgrade. This was interpreted in Paris as not such bad news for Sarkozy: Since Germany had been included in the S.&P. pack, France had not been singled out.
Indeed, in order to win in 2012, the French president will need to convince his countrymen that he alone has the capacity to maintain the Franco-German relationship and to reinforce the Union to better protect the French from the negative side of globalization.
Merkel doesn’t face a general election until 2013. The opposition Social Democrats are closer to her European positions than the Liberals of her own coalition. In Berlin, concerns over credit and exports prevail: Some of the chancellor’s allies didn’t hesitate to denounce S.&P. as part of an American plot to weaken the euro zone and divert attention from the U.S. debt problem.
The danger of such diverging national narratives is that they will lead to jingoism — the very evil that the European Union was meant to erase.
In Berlin, it is a common belief that the euro zone be just fine if it could somehow turn itself into a large version of Germany: respectful of rules, wary of deficits, cautious of overexpenditure. As for the French, they never love Europe so much as when they think it is like France: brilliant rhetoric, lots of rules and a capacity to go around them.
The Brussels summit is being called a last-chance meeting. But so long as there is no shared narrative among E.U. members, it will be hard to avoid a confrontation of national interests. Then again, previous occasions have shown that it is precisely at junctures like this that Europe has been able to leap forward in the pursuit of common priorities.
By Christine Ockrent, a journalist based in Paris.