Two like-signed vorticity regions can pair or merge into one vortex. This phenomenon occurs if the original two vortices are sufficiently close together, that is, if the distance between the vorticity centroids is smaller than a certain critical merger distance, which depends on the initial shape of the vortex distributions. Our conclusions are based on an analytical/numerical study, which presents the first quantitative description of the cause and mechanism behind the restricted process of symmetric vortex merger. We use two complementary models to investigate the merger of identical vorticity regions. The first, based on a recently introduced low-order physical-space moment model of the two-dimensional Euler equations, is a Hamiltonian system of ordinary differential equations for the evolution of the centroid position, aspect ratio and orientation of each region. By imposing symmetry this system is made integrable and we obtain a necessary and sufficient condition for merger. This condition involves only the initial conditions and the conserved quantities. The second model is a high-resolution pseudospectral algorithm governing weakly dissipative flow in a box with periodic boundary conditions. When the results obtained by both methods are juxtaposed, we obtain a detailed kinematic insight into the merger process. When the moment model is generalized to include a weak Newtonian viscosity, we find a ‘metastable’ state with a lifetime depending on the dissipation timescale. This state attracts all initial configurations that do not merge on a convective timescale. Eventually, convective merger occurs and the state disappears. Furthermore, spectral simulations show that initial conditions with a centroid separation slightly larger than the critical merger distance initially cause a rapid approach towards this metastable state.