German Chancellor Angela Merkel signaled new openness to far-reaching changes to fortify the European Union as she met with French President Emmanuel Macron on his first full day on the job.
The two leaders said Mr. Macron's victory in France's presidential election could breathe new life into the Franco-German relationship, which has long been the motor for deepening the binds of EU member states. Ms. Merkel's relief at have such a staunch pro-European partner in Mr. Macron was palpable: A few weeks ago, she faced the possibility of confronting his since-vanquished rival, far-right nationalist Marine Le Pen, whose political career has for years been devoted to destroying the project of European integration.
"The French elections...have shown the Germans once more what a treasure Europe is and how important German-French cooperation and friendship is for this treasure," Ms. Merkel said in a joint news conference with Mr. Macron at the Chancellery in Berlin. "So I believe we are at a very sensitive moment in history that we should now also take advantage of -- to make something of it that will be understood by the people as a strengthening of Europe."
To that end, Ms. Merkel said she would be ready to discuss changes to the EU treaty to strengthen the bloc "if it makes sense." That was a new tone for the chancellor, sounding more positive about the possibility of treaty changes than she had in recent months. The two leaders left unsaid, however, what kind of treaty change they might seek.
The meeting's warm tone reflected rising hopes in Germany that Mr. Macron may be able to deliver what officials in Berlin have long demanded: a convincing overhaul of France's tightly regulated economy that would jump-start growth in the eurozone's second-largest economy. Mr. Macron ran as a business-friendly centrist, pushing liberal economic policies that previous French leaders have regarded with skepticism.
For his part, Mr. Macron is asking Ms. Merkel to pool eurozone government funds into a shared budget that could be used to support members of the currency area in economic distress. The French leader believes such a step would help address deep flaws in the eurozone that in 2010 exploded into a debt crisis that nearly tore the currency area apart.
The political obstacles to enacting these big changes have for years proved too large to overcome. The two leaders committed to developing a road map for how they wanted to improve the EU but offered few specifics in Monday's news conference.
Ms. Merkel and her government have long been skeptical of proposals to pool more resources, believing that sharing eurozone money could let countries off the hook when it comes to balancing their budgets and making necessary reforms. And in France, opponents of such reforms have already vowed to launch street protests against any attempt by Mr. Macron to liberalize France's highly regulated labor market.
Mr. Macron himself sounded a note of skepticism about the political obstacles standing in the way of such major changes.
"I don't underestimate the difficulty that implies," Mr. Macron said. "Our publics don't feel the same."
"In France, I must lead deep reforms," he added, "which are necessary for our country, but necessary also for the full restoration of Franco-German confidence. And Ms. Merkel has the job of convincing her public opinion and political life in this direction."
Mr. Macron also called on the EU to toughen its policies against countries that flout the rules of international trade. He said the EU should react more quickly to these violations and impose higher tariffs against foreign companies that dump their goods onto European markets.
"Today, Europe defends its companies and workers less well than the United States," he said.
Write to Matthew Dalton at Matthew.Dalton@wsj.com and Anton Troianovski at firstname.lastname@example.org
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
May 15, 2017 18:11 ET (22:11 GMT)