Author: JANOSCH DELCKER AND NICHOLAS VINOCUR
BERLIN — France wants the world to know it’s finally ready to play by EU deficit rules — in exchange for a chance to lead Europe toward deeper integration.
That was the message French Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire delivered to his German counterpart, Wolfgang Schaüble, in Berlin and to other peers in Brussels during his first foreign trip since being appointed by Emmanuel Macron.
“I’m here to tell Wolfgang that France will respect its commitments in terms of deficit reduction,” Le Maire said in Berlin Monday, standing next to Schaüble. “I’m not saying this to please Europe or our German friends but because it’s good for France to have well-managed public finances.”
Le Maire was dispatched from Paris to convince Germany that France has a serious roadmap for reform, and would be a dependable partner to lead plans for deeper EU integration. He spent much of his 45-minute sit down with Schaüble explaining exactly what his government planned to do during its first weeks in power.
Schaüble and the German government “are obviously interested in deficit reduction, and there is also interest in labor reform. But for them it’s a package: Can France show them that we are getting the ball rolling?” a senior aide to Le Maire said.
Asked how long new President Macron’s team had to convince the world it was serious about reform, the aide said: “Six months. It’s a question of showing there is legislation moving, things changing — not just naming a committee to reflect on some issue down the line.”
Paris’ man in Berlin
In a governing team heavily focused on European affairs, Le Maire is well-suited for the job of chief Germany schmoozer.
He speaks German far better than most French grandees. He knows the EU negotiating process, having served as agriculture minister under former president Nicolas Sarkozy. He met with Schaüble repeatedly during a failed 2016 bid for a conservative presidential nomination and shares his basic political DNA.
The respect goes both ways. Schaüble gave Le Maire a verbal nod that was as strong as it was brief during their joint address. “Germany trusts France,” Schaüble said.
The two men laid out plans for a Franco-German initiative on eurozone reform that was heavy on ambition though light on specifics.
They said a bilateral working group would aim to draft “an ambitious roadmap” for further economic integration inside the eurozone.
Measures will include economic reforms on the national level, the reduction of public and private debt and harmonizing corporate taxes across the monetary union, the ministers said.
“We are both convinced that France and Germany hold a special responsibility for leadership” when it comes to strengthening the eurozone, Schäuble told reporters during a press conference before heading to Brussels for a Eurogroup finance ministers’ meeting.
The Franco-German working group will present its results ahead of a joint cabinet meeting in July.
“We’ve been talking about progress in eurozone integration for years, but things are not moving quickly enough,” Le Maire said. “Now, we will tackle this face-on so that we can see progress.”
Behind the scenes, however, Le Maire still has plenty of convincing to do in Germany and in Brussels where he met with European commissioner Pierre Moscovici, himself a former French finance minister, before the Eurogroup.
Indeed, after breathing a sigh of relief after Macron’s election, Germany’s political class switched to a more skeptical mode regarding Macron’s ability to carry out his agenda.
The left-leaning Spiegel magazine summed up the feeling with a front page headline under a photo of Macron that read: “Our expensive friend.”
The concern in Germany is not just that Macron won’t deliver on its reform plans. It’s also that, even if he does, Berlin will have to start thinking hard about French demands it had always rejected. French economic weakness was a convenient reason not to move ahead with deeper eurozone convergence. Now that France seems determined to move forward, Berlin is feeling pressure to act on demands such as a eurozone finance minister — and not necessarily enjoying it.
“The institutional subjects will be further down the line,” said the Le Maire aide. “Germany is not closed on the idea of treaty change in the EU, but first they want to see our economies converge more.”
Berlin welcomed the new French commitment to reform, but the basic attitude remained “wait and see.”
“Schaüble has seen many French finance ministers come and go,” said the Le Maire aide. “He is waiting to see that France can deliver. [The Germans] understand that we have a few big hurdles to jump before we can really move, namely with parliamentary elections.”
Le Maire’s office will be in charge of deficit reduction, tax reforms and Franco-German efforts on EU integration. The labor ministry will preside over politically explosive talks on changing hiring and firing rules.
Schäuble’s and Le Maire’s meeting came two weeks after Macron won the French presidential election. Last week, Macron visited German Chancellor Angela Merkel for the first time. Afterward, the leaders declared their shared determination to save European unity in the face of Brexit, among other things.
Asked on Monday about the United Kingdom’s looming departure from the EU, Le Maire said he believed it had the potential “for our financial sectors to become more attractive.”
“Our job is it to come up with a [new] direction for our countries, and Brexit offers this chance,” he added.