EU allies try to revive axis

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The Independent Online
THE leaders of France and Germany sought yesterday to hammer out a common front in the coming battles over European integration.

President Jacques Chirac and Chancellor Gerhard Schroder promised a "fresh wind" in their relationship when they met for their first formal summit since the end of the Kohl era.

At the start of the two-day meeting, military drills and strains of the two national anthems greeted the leaders on their arrival in Potsdam, the town outside Berlin where the Allies signed the treaty on the occupation of Germany after the Second World War. The two men went immediately into direct consultations.

Both sides have conceded that the vaunted Franco- German axis ground virtually to a halt as the German regime of Helmut Kohl came to an end. Whether the new populist slogans can restore substance to the key relationship will be gleaned from the joint communique they plan to issue today.

Mr Chirac's task of finding common ground with his neighbours has been complicated by Germany's change of government. No stranger to cohabitation with his own Socialist-led government, the French leader must now conduct a dialogue with a cacophonous German chorus after 16 years of a Kohl solo. Not even Germans can tell which voice in Bonn speaks for Germany.

The two countries hold summits twice yearly, but this meeting has special significance ahead of January, when the euro currency is launched and Germany takes over the rotating six-month presidency of the European Union.

The talks are expected to centre on financial systems, restructuring Europe's aerospace industry and reforming the EU budget.

Germany, the biggest budget contributor, wants some money back. And, since France is one of the biggest beneficiaries of German largesse, Paris is unenthusiastic.

Mr Schroder, no friend of the farm lobby, wants the EU to cut back the common agricultural policy.

The summit is the first for Mr Schroder, who won the German election for the Social Democrats in September. Although both countries now have left-wing governments,they do not see eye to eye on the issue of nuclear power. The new German government wants to shut its 19 nuclear plants, while Paris fears this could cut work at the French nuclear fuel-reprocessing plant whose biggest foreign customer is Germany.

The leaders will seek common approaches to major EU projects, such as preparing for new members from the former Soviet bloc.

European efforts to merge national aerospace industries to compete with the American giants Boeing and Lockheed Martin are also on the agenda. Germany prefers a three-way merger of the European aerospace industry, including France and Britain, but would move ahead with Britain first if the French do not participate immediately.