We’re not ready for Europe after Merkel.
Not even French President Emmanuel Macron has the stature to fill the void the German chancellor will leave behind.
2021 is finally the year Europe will have to learn to live without Angela Merkel. The German Chancellor is stepping down in the fall after more than 15 years in office and at least a decade as Europe’s unquestioned leader. It’s a transition that’s not without risk.
The danger here isn’t linked to who will replace her. Instead, it results from the vacuum she’ll leave in Europe.
Despite the hyperbole of some commentators, all of the contenders to replace her — Armin Laschet, Friedrich Merz, Norbert Röttgen, Markus Söder and Jens Spahn — are mainstream, even if some are more conservative, with sharper edges than others.
More importantly, the coalition that will emerge from September’s election will likely be “Black-Green”— comprising the “Union parties” of Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU) and the Bavarian Christian Social Union (CSU) in an alliance with the Greens.
Ultimately, this will be good news for Germany and good news for Europe. But in the short- and medium-term, Merkel’s departure will leave a large void that no EU leader can credibly fill. French President Emmanuel Macron will certainly try, but without Merkel, or the unlikely possibility of a strong partner in Berlin, he won’t succeed. Macron is a much more divisive figure, with more ambitious, but also controversial, ideas about EU reform. He would struggle — or be less inclined — to fashion the delicate compromises upon which the EU is built.
This contrasts with the German leader’s deft political skills, which were neatly demonstrated at the end of last year. Under Merkel’s leadership, Germany’s EU presidency was able to go some way in locking in Europe’s economic recovery, with a deal on the landmark €750 billion recovery fund in the face of staunch opposition from Hungary and Poland.
She also managed to conclude a trade agreement with the U.K. and an investment deal with China, both of whose real value is the framework and basis for broader political and strategic cooperation they provide. If that wasn’t enough, she also managed to upgrade the EU’s climate ambition and 2030 emissions cutting target.
There are many criticisms leveled against Merkel and the compromises she brokered. The most damning is that entrenched industrial interests within the CDU forced her to bend to the authoritarians — in Warsaw, Budapest and Beijing — again. There is some truth to this. But Merkel’s critics pay little serious attention to the counterfactual or the costs involved in alternative paths of action.
Take the recovery fund. If Merkel had pushed Warsaw or Budapest too hard on the rule of law, it would have risked strengthening populists and ultra-nationalists in both countries exactly at the moment they are weakening. Excluding members from EU funds — the central pillar of membership — would also have decisively split the bloc, and even created openings for China and Russia.
The EU’s cohesion would also have been further tested as its economic recovery waned. With no credible EU fiscal support, more unwelcome pressure would have landed on the European Central Bank and peripheral high-debt economies to kickstart growth.
All this would have proven to be a very high price, and Merkel was right not to pay it — especially as the EU’s new rule of law instrument will in time allow Brussels to get tougher with corrupt leaders who flout the EU’s values.
Could Macron have brokered these solutions alone? Absolutely not. But without the French president, many of these ideas would never have been seeded. The recovery fund was conceived in the Elysée, arguably an iteration of the “eurozone budget” that was Macron’s top European political priority upon winning office in 2017. Although the subsequent Meseberg Declaration of 2018 had many shortcomings, it represented a symbolic, albeit small step away from German thinking toward long-term French thinking, especially the ideas articulated by Macron at the Sorbonne in 2017.
Likewise, “strategic autonomy” — Paris’ intellectual framework for EU independence and geopolitical relevance — laid the groundwork for the bloc’s recent initiative with China. The Aachen Treaty of January 2019 also renewed the Franco-German Elysée Treaty of 1963 and committed the two countries “to strengthen cooperation and integration.”
Of course, one could argue that Brexit, Donald Trump and the coronavirus pandemic were as critical as the French president in changing Merkel’s outlook. But the chancellor clearly saw the need to move away from the old German balance between the Atlantic (NATO) and Eastern Europe/Moscow and make stronger links with the Europe’s south, namely Italy and Spain — as well as France.
Macron can therefore claim to have succeeded where his predecessors Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande failed. He did so partly because he had a European strategic vision to sell to the Germans — at a time when they saw they needed one — not just a demand for German financial support.
But while Macron clearly expects to be a guiding force in post-Merkel Europe, in reality, he will, more than ever, need a sympathetic partner in Berlin. And that is completely out of his control.
His greatest fear — the emergence of a chancellor who will push hard on European brakes and look inward — is on some level is justified. Germany’s new leader, necessarily inexperienced, given the candidates, is likely to be more preoccupied with domestic politics and coalition management than Merkel was. The CDU and Greens have never partnered before. When it comes to Europe, they will likely be cautious.
Moreover, Macron’s own energy and efforts this year will largely be absorbed by domestic health and economic crises. And when Germany’s new leader does come up for air, Macron own presidential elections in the spring of 2022 will be approaching. This guarantees that Paris and Berlin will remain out of lockstep for some time to come — and that Europe will be ineffectively led for the next 12 to 15 months.
Could this impact the smooth implementation of the recovery fund or, perhaps even more importantly, the reform of the EU’s fiscal rules — arguably key to the euro’s long-term viability? Could the EU’s deal with China get stuck indefinitely in the European Parliament? Without Merkel, or the effective Franco-German cooperation that Merkron delivered, unhinged leaders, like Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan could also seek to exploit the vacuum, increasing the risk of skirmishes in the Eastern Mediterranean.