Merkel, Hollande to present common front for EU in crisis

STRASBOURG: Angela Merkel and Francois Hollande address the European Parliament on Wednesday, hoping to bolster EU cohesion to face interlocking crises in an echo of Franco-German unity in the days after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

As Germany marks a quarter century since the reunification of east and west in October 1990, the German chancellor and French president will speak on the challenges facing a European Union altered beyond recognition since their predecessors, Helmut Kohl and Francois Mitterrand, made the last such joint appearance in the Strasbourg assembly on Nov. 22, 1989.

"This is a historic visit for historically difficult times," said parliament speaker Martin Schulz, a German Social Democrat who has sought to forge closer ties between Paris and Berlin.

"The EU is facing immense challenges and requires strong commitment by its leaders."

High on their agenda will be the migration crisis around refugees from the Syrian civil war whose arrival in the hundreds of thousands in recent months has created bitter divisions among the 28 states of the European Union and seen border controls reimposed across a continent where their disappearance since the opening of the Iron Curtain is cherished as a major achievement.

Confrontation with Russia, over its seizure of territory in Ukraine and also now its military involvement in Syria, also presents the EU with serious dilemmas. And France and Germany, the postwar founders of the bloc, are also looking for ways to shore up the euro common currency after months of renewed crisis before the bankrupt Greek state was bailed out for a third time.

Officials in Paris and Berlin play down prospects of major policy initiatives in the two half-hour speeches, starting with Hollande at 3 p.m. (1300 GMT). The two leaders, respectively from the French centre-left and German centre-right, will also face questioning from heads of the legislature's party blocs.

Those include Marine Le Pen of France's anti-immigrant National Front, whose strong poll showing threatens Hollande's prospects of re-election in 2017, when Merkel's term also ends.

Also slated to speak is the bloc led by the UK Independence Party, which is pushing for Britain, Europe's second-biggest economy, to quit the European Union in a referendum Prime Minister David Cameron will call in the next couple of years.

In 1989, when Kohl and Mitterrand spoke in Strasbourg as Europe was in the grip of uncertainty about the crumbling of Soviet power in the east, the EU had only 12 member states. It now has 28. And where France and West Germany were long viewed as a balanced partnership in the lead, the larger, richer, reunited Germany is now the dominant power.