PARIS (AFP) — France and Germany called off a second top-level meeting Tuesday, fuelling suggestions of a diplomatic spat over economic issues and French plans for a new Mediterranean Union that would exclude Berlin.
Finance Minister Christine Lagarde and her German counterpart Peer Steinbrueck cancelled a twice-yearly meeting planned for Tuesday in Paris with the heads of both central banks, with Lagarde's staff citing scheduling reasons.
Both Paris and Berlin gave the same reason for the decision last week to postpone a March 3 summit between President Nicolas Sarkozy and Chancellor Angela Merkel, now pushed back to June 9.
Sarkozy's office has denied any link to disagreements over his plans for a Mediterranean Union, stressing that both leaders would still meet for working talks on March 3 in the northern German city of Hanover.
But French officials acknowledged Tuesday that controversy was "mounting" over the decision to delay the summit and that there were some subjects on which "some clarification was necessary."
The German media jumped on the alleged chill between two traditionally staunch allies.
"The French government no longer finds time for its German partner," wrote the financial newspaper Handelsblatt.
For its part, German newspaper Die Welt claimed the talks were called off after Merkel refused to write a joint op-ed piece with Sarkozy about the Mediterranean Union, a project Berlin fears could divide the European Union.
But the Mediterranean project is not the only issue over which the two countries disagree. Paris and Berlin are also at odds on economic issues; namely the role of the European Central Bank and France's deficit.
Merkel backs the bank's independence which she deems "essential", while Sarkozy has criticised the downsides of the bank's strong-euro policy.
Meanwhile Steinbrueck has called on Paris to respect an engagement to balance its budget by 2010, while France is holding out for more time.
The new Mediterranean union is another stumbling block, observers say.
"After (World War II) we made a choice not to have a French zone of influence on one side and a German one on the other, and that there should be a strategic vision and a perception of common interests -- whether they be in the South, in the North or in the East," said Sylvie Goulard, president of the Movement Europeen-France, a group backing a federal Europe.
"The Mediterranean Union project is seen by the Germans as breaking this fundamental pact," Goulard added.
French foreign ministry spokeswoman Pascale Andreani admitted on Tuesday the decision to push back the Sarkozy-Merkel summit had sparked "controversy".
"It's true there is a certain amount of controversy brewing over the March 3 meeting," she said, adding that "there are still some subjects in need of clarification."
She said the two leaders would "talk, in full confidence, of all subjects" on March 3, adding that "the Franco-German relationship is the pillar of what is happening in the European Union, partly because we are not always in agreement about everything."
But Andreani also repeated that the Mediterranean Union would be "a priority for our presidency."
"We have no reason to apologise. I have no doubt that we will reach an agreement on the matter."
Sarkozy's proposal for the union, grouping countries of the Mediterranean rim, is to be set in motion at a Paris summit in July, when France takes over the rotating presidency of the European Union.
Presented as a bridge between Europe, Africa and the Middle East, the Mediterranean Union has also been seen as an alternative to full Turkish membership of the European Union -- opposed by both Merkel and Sarkozy.
Merkel has apparently objected to not been invited to the project's July 13 launching ceremony, but only to an event the following day when the other EU member states have been invited to approve it.
"Germany is only invited for dessert," said Goulard.
Personal relations between Sarkozy and Merkel are reportedly frosty as well.
"It's not De Gaulle-Adenauer, Giscard-Schmidt, Mitterrand-Kohl. And it's not Chirac-Schroeder," said a French diplomat, referring to past pair-offs between French and German leaders -- including the particularly warm relationship between Sarkozy's and Merkel's predecessors, former French president Jacques Chirac and German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder.
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