Merkel and Chirac fail to hide the tension

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The Independent Online

President Jacques Chirac and Chancellor Angela Merkel, in their first summit since her appointment, promised to kickstart the Franco-German "motor" to give "fresh impetus " to the EU. But the meeting in Versailles yesterday failed to dispel the impression that relations between the two allies had seen better times.

Ms Merkel refused to make any concession on France's request for a special EU exemption to allow a sharp reduction in VAT on restaurant meals in France. There was no sign either of any true meeting of minds on how the EU should move forward from the rejection of the proposed constitution by referendums in France and the Netherlands.

Although the VAT spat may seem trivial to outsiders, the French President first promised to reduce the VAT on restaurant meals to 5.5 per cent (down from a punishing 19.5 per cent) during his 2002 election campaign. The shift of restaurants from one VAT band to another must be approved by EU governments. It has been blocked until now by Germany, which is planning to raise its VAT rates next year.

Ms Merkel showed no willingness yesterday to withdraw Berlin's objections when the issue comes up for discussion in Brussels today. President Chirac indicated that he hoped for no more than a decision to put off a decision until another day.

However, the leaders promised to work closely on how the EU should recover from the rejection of the constitution. But they did not address the fundamental difference between the two countries. France wants to revive some of the constitution's ideas for streamlining EU decision-making and to ditch the rest. Ms Merkel says that she can only accept the whole treaty.

Instead, the French and German leaders promised to try to revive the partnership between the countries with a series of concrete proposals on EU research, employment, migration and energy policy at the European summit on 23 March. The warm words failed to disguise the fact that the Franco-German relationship has been, at best, idling since Ms Merkel came to power.

Partly, this is an inevitable consequence of the political timetable. President Chirac, weakened by his EU referendum defeat and his health, is approaching the end of his career, whereas Ms Merkel wants to make a fresh start. As a post-war child raised in East Germany, some fear that she will be tempted to spread Germany's diplomatic energies wider than previous chancellors. She will build strong relations with Russia, eastern Europe, the United States and Britain. France will also be an important partner but no longer the privileged partner of old.

In the Elysée Palace an even darker suspicion reigns: that Ms Merkel sees no point in developing a close relationship with a lame-duck M. Chirac, who is unlikely to be president beyond next spring. She has already forged friendly direct links with his possible successor, the Interior Minister, Nicolas Sarkozy.

A willingness by Ms Merkel yesterday to allow French diners to eat cheaper restaurant meals would have shown that she wanted to work closely with M. Chirac, but it was a signal that she failed to give.

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