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Merkel, Hollande seek to warm up ties on Baltic coast

Germany's Angela Merkel from Friday will host French President Francois Hollande in a picturesque Baltic coastal town for informal talks meant to strengthen the personal chemistry between the two European leaders.

STRALSUND: Germany's Angela Merkel from Friday will host French President Francois Hollande in a picturesque Baltic coastal town for informal talks meant to strengthen the personal chemistry between the two European leaders.

A range of pressing issues -- including the tense standoff with Moscow over Ukraine, European elections in two weeks and a possible major trans-border corporate deal -- will be on the agenda of the two-day visit starting 1400 GMT on what is the EU's official "Europe Day".

But with a island cruise on the schedule, as well as a sight-seeing stroll past the Gothic red brick churches and medieval gabled houses of Stralsund, the meeting is also intended to help the two politicians improve their initially rocky relationship.

While conservative Chancellor Merkel throughout the eurozone crisis has championed the need for fiscal discipline and austerity, Socialist Hollande has advocated stimulus measures to boost growth and ease the pain during his two years in power.

The invitation to Merkel's electoral district "is certainly a sign of recognition and esteem", said Franco-German Institute vice president Henrik Uterwedde, who said relations "have clearly become more friendly" since the days when Merkel openly backed Hollande's election rival, then president Nicolas Sarkozy.

Divisions between Berlin and Paris have faded in the light of a new common threat for the EU and its Western allies: the standoff with Russia in the Ukraine crisis, which has plunged east-west relations to their lowest point since the Cold War.

"Between us, the current flows without the need for an electric jolt," Hollande has asserted, while Merkel has evoked an "alchemy" that "operates between us".

Merkel has only rarely invited other world leaders to the UNESCO Heritage-listed port -- among them former US president George W Bush, who during a 2006 visit was given a barrel of pickled herring, a local speciality, and was treated to barbecued wild boar in a nearby village.

Political scientist Claire Demesmay of the German Council on Foreign Relations said the talks are "meant to signal that we have entered a phase of trust, to signal the element of personal closeness that has always been fundamental in Franco-German relations".

Nonetheless, the two 59-year-olds do not meet each other on equal political footing. While Merkel rules over a humming economy and last year won a third term by a landslide, Hollande faces economic and budget woes and suffered sweeping defeats in recent municipal polls.

During the talks between Merkel and Hollande, there will be "a thorough discussion" of how Europe should act in terms of sanctions against Moscow, said a source in the president's office.

A potential major business deal will also be on the agenda, as German engineering giant Siemens eyes a stake in France's Alstom, against a bid from US rival General Electric. While Paris favours the German offer, Berlin's official line is that the companies involved must decide.

At the EU level, ahead of parliamentary elections on May 22-25, both leaders have cause to worry about an expected rise of populist and eurosceptic parties.

In the race to succeed Jose Manuel Barroso as European Commission chief, Merkel backs conservative candidate Jean-Claude Juncker -- another one-time guest in Stralsund -- while Hollande favours Social Democrat Martin Schulz.

Whatever the outcome of the polls, both Hollande and Merkel "have a special responsibility in the choices that must be made" after the elections, as they seek to revive the EU's main bodies, said a source close to Hollande.

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