Merkel champions adoption of 'whole' EU Constitution
The new German chancellor Angela Merkel has said during her first foreign trip to Paris and Brussels that she "stands by the EU constitution," vowing to revive the shelved charter when Germany takes over the EU presidency in 2007.
Berlin's new leader dined with European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso in Brussels on Wednesday evening (23 November), after a long day of meetings that started with a kiss on the hand by French president Jacques Chirac in Paris in the morning.
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Ms Merkel, who was sworn in as chancellor on Tuesday, upheld her predecessors’ tradition that the first trip goes to Paris, but she gave her own symbolically important touch to the schedule by tabling a Brussels rendezvous at NATO and the EU institutions on the same day.
Speaking at press conferences with European Parliament president Josep Borrell and Mr Barroso, Ms Merkel explained the Brussels stop-over was meant "to make clear right from the start" that Europe was "at the centre of the agenda" of her cabinet.
The 51 year-old first woman chancellor reaffirmed the new German coalition’s ambition to revive the EU Constitution, which has been put on ice by EU leaders since June when French and Dutch voters rejected the charter.
We stand by the constitution
"We stand by the constitution," she said, adding that the reflection period agreed by EU leaders after the French and Dutch "no" votes should "by no means lead to the idea of the constitution being given up."
The chancellor said that Berlin will "not be pushing too hard" to get the charter ratified, and will "wait for things to happen" first, but that the topic will be on the agenda when Germany takes over the EU presidency in the first half of 2007.
Ms Merkel also stated her government seeks adoption of the constitution "as a whole," adding "we do not want to split it up."
This remark raises doubts about Berlin's strategy to resuscitate the charter, as it appears to go against her government’s coalition agreement.
The coalition deal between Ms Merkel’s christian democrat CDU party and the social democrat SPD states that the "early warning system" clause in the constitution could already be implemented separately, as "no treaty change is necessary" for such a move.
First things first
The new German leader's insistence on the ratification of the charter is set to raise eyebrows during Ms Merkel’s visits to London on Thursday, and to The Hague next week, where governments are faced with strong popular resistance to the text.
Before the revival of the constitution, however, Ms Merkel said the EU should first demonstrate its capacity to act by tackling outstanding issues – notably the thorny issue of the bloc’s 2007-2013 budget.
Ms Merkel said a deal on the EU budget at an EU leaders' summit was "particularly important for countries of central and eastern Europe" - signalling interest in a region which she says was often forgotten by the previous Schroder government.
"The new member states … need a proper framework to plan investment," Ms Merkel said, referring to Brussels' structural fund promises to new member states under the budget.
But just one day before her meeting with UK prime minister Tony Blair on Thursday, the German leader was careful not to join voices criticising the UK presidency’s lack of effort to secure a budget deal before Christmas.
Standing next to Mr Barroso, who was visibly impatient with London’s lethargy over the issue, reminding it several times of its "special responsibility," Ms Merkel said she would be talking to Mr Blair about the "chances for progress in December," avoiding a reporter’s question on the UK rebate.
Kiss on the hand in Paris
Ms Merkel’s packed trip started with a delicate kiss on the hand by president Chirac when the German leader arrived at the Elysee palace for a lunch meeting.
The French and German leaders symbolically reaffirmed their country’s close relationship, with Ms Merkel expressing her "conviction that a good German-French relationship, a friendly, a deep relationship, is not only important for our two countries but also necessary and desirable for Europe," according to media reports.
But remarks made later by the chancellor in Brussels indicated that the Paris-Berlin relationship will probably not enjoy the same strength under the Merkel government as under former chancellor Schroder.
Mr Chirac and Mr Schroder formed a close alliance based on two main pillars – their common opposition against the Iraq war and their dislike of liberal economic reforms promoted by the Barroso commission.
By contrast, Ms Merkel during her Brussels visit signalled her policies would be more transatlantic, as well as more reform-minded.
After meeting NATO chief Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, she stated that "the ties between the United States and Germany can be developed further."
In a joint press conference with Mr Barroso, she backed the Barroso commission’s pro-reform line, saying that "the EU must focus on economic reform," while adding that its "social model can only be preserved if the economy is strong."