German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande together marked the 100-year anniversary of the Battle of Verdun on Sunday, laying a wreath at a cemetery in northeastern France for the 300,000 soldiers killed.
The two leaders were due to lunch together and then to make joint statements later in the day. Hollande said earlier this week discussions would focus on Europe’s future, including the migrant crisis, security and the rise of populist movements.
The Verdun battle was one of the longest in World War I, lasting more than 300 days from February to December 1916.
Sunday’s commemorations at Verdun took place in the rain, and Hollande held an umbrella for Merkel and himself as they made their way to the German cemetery Consenvoy to lay a wreath.
The battle’s commemoration has come to signify the close relationship between Germany and France. It was not until 1984 that the neighbours carried out a joint ceremony to mark the Verdun battle, another step towards ending decades of residual hostility and distrust after two World Wars.
A photo of then French President Francois Mitterand and then German Chancellor Helmut Kohl holding hands in the Douaumont cemetery at Verdun became a symbol of Franco-German reconciliation.
That year also saw the European parliament adopt the treaty on the establishment of the European Union and a Franco-German agreement on the gradual abolition of border checks.
In 2016, however, some of these foundations appear under threat. Britain’s June referendum on EU membership, a rise in Islamist militant attacks, the biggest migrant crisis since World War II and a slow economic recovery have strained relations in the bloc and raised the prospect of a catastrophic euro breakup.
In her weekly podcast, Merkel said Germany’s relations with France had stood fast even when the countries had diverging opinions, and that Europe would have to adapt.
“Europe has problems but Europe has also managed to do a lot and it has come a long way. In a world of global challenges it is important to develop Europe further and to push through the changes that are necessary,” she said.