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France, Germany rein in ambitions for joint cabinet meeting

Source: Reuters - Tue, 18 Feb 2014 03:23 PM
Author: Reuters
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* First joint cabinet meet since Merkel re-election

* Ambitions modest ahead of EU elections, new Commission

* Energy, Internet, defence among topics on the agenda

By Mark John

PARIS, Feb 18 (Reuters) - Angela Merkel dreams of a European communications network and Francois Hollande of an "energy Airbus" but talks between the German and French leaders on Wednesday will be far more modest in scope, officials said.

The meeting in Paris includes their entire cabinets and is the most broad-ranging yet between the two EU partners since the conservative Merkel's re-election last year in charge of a "grand coalition" with German centre-left Social Democrats.

It comes a month after Berlin applauded Hollande's public acknowledgment that he needed to pursue more business-friendly policies to help companies create growth and jobs - a stance that puts French policy more in line with the German view.

With European Parliament elections set for May and a new European Commission due to be in place months later, neither Paris nor Berlin are planning grand new initiatives to forge deeper union among the 28 members of the EU.

But even on the more specific projects under discussion - from energy and the Internet to tax convergence and defence cooperation - expectations for the Paris talks are limited.

Hollande's call last month for the creation of an "energy Airbus" - a reference to the cross-border European aerospace giant created in 1970 - was met with stunned surprise in Berlin by officials who had not been informed of the idea.

French officials have since clarified that he was talking simply about more tie-ups between French and German research institutes on the storage and transmission of renewable energies, details of which will be announced on Wednesday.

"2014 is not the late-1960s and aerospace is not energy," said one French official, acknowledging there were no plans to create a company that would be the energy sector counterpart of the Airbus manufacturer.

Likewise, while Paris broadly shares Merkel's concerns over data protection in Europe after reports of mass surveillance in Germany and elsewhere by the U.S. National Security Agency, it is more non-committal about her push to find ways to avoid emails and other data passing through the United States.

The French official noted that France already laid out its ideas for bolstering the European digital economy - including the long-term need to strengthen its Internet infrastructure - last October as Merkel was busy negotiating her new coalition.

"If they want to call it a European communications network, why not?" said the official of a German plan which experts say could require Internet giants such as Google or Facebook to consent to basing servers in Europe.

DELICATE CONTEXT

Other results from the meeting are set to be modest. A 250-strong Franco-German brigade will be sent to Mali in June to help France maintain the peace in its former colony after it pushed back an Islamist insurgency last year - but the unit will have a mostly training role, not a combat one.

France's hopes of getting German backing for a new EU law on genetically-modified organisms (GMO) may also have hit a setback with the abrupt resignation of Germany's farm minister for leaking information about a lawmaker being investigated for possessing child pornography.

"In this extremely delicate context they must be given sufficient time. Because in Germany they have not settled the debate," French Farm Minister Stephane Le Foll told reporters.

France is pushing for new EU rules that would transfer to each country the power to approve or reject GMO seeds for cultivation on its own soil.

Eurosceptic parties are seen faring well in May's European Parliament elections as voters punish mainstream parties of government for what many see as an uncertain handling of the six-year economic and financial crisis.

While officials in Berlin and Paris say those elections and the change of Commission make it hard to make ambitious plans to deepen EU integration, backers of a stronger union fear that little will emerge from the meeting to inspire voters.

"There is no vision," said Andre Loesekrug-Pietri, head of a Euro-Asian private equity fund and member of the newly-formed French, pro-EU lobby group Eiffel Europe.

"When there is so much uncertainty (in Europe), the only way to bring back confidence is to have a long-term vision and take back the agenda from the Eurosceptics," he said. (Additional reporting by Julien Ponthus and Sybille de la Hamaide in Paris, Andreas Rinke in Berlin; Editing by Tom Heneghan)

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