STRASBOURG, France (AP) - French President Francois Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, in a highly unusual bid to heal divisions within the EU, urged European lawmakers on Wednesday to pull together to create a stronger Europe to cope with the influx of migrants that is raising tensions and dangerously straining the union.
STRASBOURG, France (AP) — French President Francois Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, in a highly unusual bid to heal divisions within the EU, urged European lawmakers on Wednesday to pull together to create a stronger Europe to cope with the influx of migrants that is raising tensions and dangerously straining the union.
Merkel spoke of a "test of historic dimensions" and Hollande evoked the "end of Europe" if it is not set right.
The separate addresses to the European Parliament in Strasbourg by the most powerful proponents of European unity underscored the risks now besetting the EU's 28 nations, including rising nationalism and a new populist fervor.
Those tensions sprang to life within the chamber when a French far-right leader insulted Hollande, addressing him as "Merkel's vice-chancellor, administrator of the province of France."
Marine Le Pen, who heads a far-right group in parliament seeking increased sovereignty for the 28 member states, told Merkel that "German interests don't justify turning other people of Europe into vassals."
The bitter retort after the two leaders' speeches underscored the encroaching nationalist sentiment within the European Union, fed by the arrival of some half-million migrants.
Hollande said Europe ensures against the "return of nationalism, populism, extremism."
"If (you) don't want a stronger Europe ... the only possible path is simply to leave Europe," Hollande said to a standing ovation.
Merkel told European lawmakers that Europe faces "a test of historic dimensions" with the influx of migrants seeking shelter from war and poverty. She urged "a determined contribution by Europe to resolving these crises."
Merkel, who has come forward as the champion of refugees flowing into Europe, said overcoming the refugee crisis together is a key challenge for the European Union.
"It is precisely now," she said, "that we need more Europe ... If we overcome that, we will be stronger after the crisis than before."
The conservative German Chancellor and the Socialist French president together symbolize the kind of Europe they want to see thrive, in which differences are set aside for the common good.
It was the first such joint appearance in Strasbourg since 1989, when West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and French President Francois Mitterrand spoke days after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
The European Union was conceived to end centuries of war through open trade and increased prosperity, and it's also been a way for Europe to stay globally relevant. Germany and France have played a leading role to keep the 28-nation bloc united despite major differences of views among European leaders.
Since 2014, the EU has faced the Ukrainian conflict at its eastern border, Greece's resurgent debt crisis, terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels, threats that Britain could leave the EU, and the biggest wave of migrant arrivals since World War II.
Elections for European parliamentarians last year produced a rise of populist and far-right parties, including members of neo-Nazi movements in Germany and Greece. With the migrant crisis, they are making their voices heard, along with nations like Hungary that want the flow of people stopped.
Hollande pressed for a strengthened eurozone, a stronger border control system among the border-free Schengen countries and a common asylum system for refugees within the EU.
The Polish vice-president of the European Conservatives and Reformists group, Ryszard Legutko, advised the German and French leaders not to forget "the difference between leadership and dominance."
"We altogether are 28, and 28 is far more than two", he said during the debate, alluding to concerns by some members that a handful of countries run policy.
King Felipe VI of Spain also came to the defense of Europe, saying in an address that "we all face the passionate challenge to construct a renewed Europe for new times in a world that is certainly different.
"There is no alternative to a united Europe. Let us have confidence in Europe. Let us have confidence in ourselves, the Europeans," he said. The 47-year-old king spoke almost 30 years after Spain's accession to the EU — and as his own country faces a rising independence movement in Catalonia.
Elaine Ganley in Paris, Geir Moulson in Berlin, Raf Casert in Brussels and Ciaran Giles in Madrid contributed to this report.