'We must show way forward' - Merkel and Macron sign new treaty in bid to strengthen EU ties
The leaders of France and Germany have signed a new treaty updating their 1963 post-war reconciliation accord, aiming to reinvigorate the European Union's main axis as eurosceptic nationalism tests EU cohesion.
At a warm ceremony in the German border city of Aachen - a historic symbol of European concord - German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron sought to show they are ready to give fresh leadership to the troubled EU project.
The leaders want the 16-page Aachen Treaty, negotiated over the past year to update the 1963 Elysée Treaty of post-war reconciliation, to give an impulse to European unity strained by Brexit, immigration and the eurozone crisis.
"We are doing this because we live in special times and because in these times we need resolute, distinct, clear, forward-looking answers," said Ms Merkel, noting Aachen had been home to Charlemagne, whom she dubbed "the father of Europe".
Mr Macron added: "At a time when Europe is threatened by nationalism, which is growing from within, when Europe is shaken by the pains of Brexit and worried by global changes that go far beyond the national level, Germany and France must assume their responsibility and show the way forward." Short on detail, the treaty extension commits to closer foreign and defence policy ties but does little to push forward eurozone economic reform.
Sabine von Oppeln, expert on Franco-German ties at Berlin's Free University, said of the slow progress on eurozone reform: "The German side is not responding to Macron's ideas, which are of course also driven by national interests.
"This could be an opportunity for a real renewal of co-operation but I fear the chance has been lost."
Franco-German treaties are seen as milestones for European integration, paving the way for the bloc as a whole to deepen co-operation.
"Today Europe needs a revival of faith in the meaning of solidarity and unity, and I want to believe that enhanced Franco-German co-operation will serve this objective," said European Council chief Donald Tusk, who attended the ceremony with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker.
The Aachen document stipulates it will be a priority of German-French diplomacy for Germany to be accepted as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council.
Germany has for years sought greater influence within the international body, to which its closest allies the United States, Britain and France belong.
While making clear that Germany and France remain committed to the EU and Nato defence alliance, the agreement also signals Berlin and Paris will combat efforts by some nationalist politicians in Europe to erode the EU.
Facing new challenges from President Donald Trump in the United States as well as EU governments in Italy, Poland and Hungary, Ms Merkel and Mr Macron are keen to head off any breakthrough for eurosceptic parties in a European Parliament vote in May.
As Ms Merkel waited to welcome Mr Macron at Aachen - also known as Aix-la-Chapelle - city hall to sign the updated treaty, some people gathered outside with blue and yellow EU balloons.
Another group wore the yellow vests adopted by members of the grassroots rebellion against Mr Macron.
Eurosceptics also voiced their opposition. Alexander Gauland, leader of the Alternative for Germany (AfD), in the Bundestag, said: "The EU is now deeply divided. A German-French special relationship will alienate us even further from the other Europeans."
The original Elysée Treaty was signed in 1963 by Chancellor Konrad Adenauer and President Charles de Gaulle, who in the same year vetoed the British application to join the European Community, the precursor of the EU.