BERLIN: Core EU powers France and Germany vowed Monday to accelerate eurozone integration, with a new bilateral panel to work out ways to kickstart the reform process.
“We’ve been talking about progress in eurozone integration for years, but things are not moving fast enough,” said France’s new Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire in Berlin after talks with his German counterpart Wolfgang Schaeuble.
“We have now decided to get things going more quickly and further in a very concrete manner,” he said.
Schaeuble agreed that “we are convinced that Germany and France must take a leading role” in strengthening the European Union in challenging times.
The new working group will look at how the currency bloc can better coordinate economic policies, harmonise its tax regime and find potential Franco-German investment projects, according to a joint statement.
“Not only our compatriots in France and Germany but also others in the eurozone are expecting concrete proposals and concrete investments that can generate economic activity and jobs,” said Le Maire.
The bilateral panel will report to a joint ministerial meeting of the eurozone’s two biggest players in July.
Le Maire and Schaeuble’s meeting came a week after German Chancellor Angela Merkel hosted France’s new President Emmanuel Macron and the two leaders vowed to give a new impetus to Europe.
Anti-EU sentiment has been rising in the bloc which has also suffered from the body blow of Britain’s decision to quit the union.
Efforts towards further integration or modernisation of the EU and eurozone have been hampered for years by the rejection of new treaties by French, Dutch and Irish voters, although governments could negotiate and adopt reforms via negotiations between themselves.
Underlining the need to improve the EU’s relevance to Europeans, Le Maire pointed to France’s bitterly fought presidential election in which both the far-right and the far-left scored their highest margins since the end of World War II.
“If we don’t succeed, then it will be those in the extremes who will succeed us,” warned Le Maire, adding that “our compatriots will only judge us by our results.”
Separately, Le Maire’s colleague, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, was also in Berlin Monday for talks with his German counterpart Sigmar Gabriel — with both ministers also affirming the need for reforms.
“Europe is in a difficult situation, we need new initiatives… and we will push for this together,” said Gabriel, adding that “we want to use this historic window opened in France to do this.”
Brexit ‘an opportunity’
Merkel and her government have pledged their support to help Macron succeed, mindful that any election outcome in France would not only affect Europe’s second biggest economy but also have a profound impact on the EU.
At a talk in Berlin, Merkel reiterated her backing for Macron’s “Republique En Marche” movement with an eye on legislative elections on June 11 and 18 in France.
“We know that there are many disappointed people who are on an anti-European track and that’s why we need to help him and ensure that he really succeeds,” said Merkel.
Le Maire said France and Germany will now work towards getting the EU members on the same page in building a “big strong economy” that stands up to competition against China or the United States.
This means improving competitiveness, lowering costs for companies, financing innovation, as well as improving capacity to better defend the eurozone’s economic interest, he said.
The French minister also urged the financial sector to seize the opportunity of Brexit to improve their attractiveness vis-a-vis their British counterparts.
“With Brexit, we see the possibility for our financial companies to become more attractive than they were before,” said Le Maire, adding that this meant “jobs and wealth for our countries”.
Many financial sector firms based in London are now looking to move operations to cities in the eurozone as Brexit could see London banks lose their “passporting rights” to sell services to clients on the continent.