There are many reasons why marriages fail, but often the culprit is disagreement over money. Apparently, countries joined in long-term political unions behave no differently than spouses. Such is certainly the case for France and Germany, whose partnership forms the backbone of that ever-expanding, increasingly motley family known as the European Union. But the family has now fallen on hard times -- cousins have loans coming due they are hard-pressed to make good on, Spain, Ireland, Italy, and Portugal among them. If a widening sovereign debt crisis, a common currency in free fall, and austerity plans weren't enough bad news for Europe, it appears that the already rocky relations between French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have reached a new low.
Last month, an unidentified source told El País that Sarkozy banged his fist on the table and threatened to leave the euro if Merkel didn't agree to a Greek bailout. She did. This past Monday, the chancellor suddenly canceled a tête-à-tête dinner with the French president. Tit for tat? But Berlin claims it was Paris that stood them up. The EU Summit that begins today in Brussels comes just in time, then. For it's not only Sarkozy and Merkel's partnership that needs couples therapy, but the larger relationship between European governments and their peoples, who are increasingly dismayed at the breakup of a social compact that has produced unparalleled peace and prosperity over the past half-decade.
The French-German pair makes for Europe's oddest political couple. Sarkozy's hyperactive yet casual cockiness is a foil to Merkel's dogged solidity. Where he is effusive, she is reserved. Apparently, she can no more stand his Gallic cheek-kissing ways than her government can stomach Paris's hands-on proposals for addressing Europe's financial crisis. As far back as 2007, rumors were flying so thick about Merkel's distaste for Sarkozy's cuddliness that a German government spokesman felt obliged to tell the Daily Telegraph that, au contraire: "The chancellor rejoiced in the president's warm greetings." Things have only gone downhill since.
Does the evident friction between Sarkozy and Merkel suggest that the French-German motor that has powered Europe for the past 60 years -- and has often required minor tuneups along the way -- might finally be falling apart? On the eve of the EU summit, all the two leaders could agree on was a prohibition against the naked short-selling of some shares and bonds. They'll have to do better than that. The meeting promises a growth strategy for Europe leading up to 2020 and is intended to produce the basis for reforms Europe would like to see in the international financial order in advance of the G-20 meeting in Toronto at the end of June. But it is precisely around the question of exactly how to ensure that the European Union never again faces a sovereign debt crisis such as the one Greece precipitated earlier this year that France and Germany have trouble agreeing.