Friday. 02.06.2023

Missing Merkel: the leader who held Europe together

The next chancellor will likely be more focused on domestic affairs at first, leaving space for France to dominate, a diplomatic source said on condition of anonymity

FILED - 23 September 2021, Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, Marlow: German Chancellor Angela Merkel gets bitten while feeding Australian lorises at Marlow Bird Park. Photo: Georg Wendt/dpa
German Chancellor Angela Merkel gets bitten while feeding Australian lorises at Marlow Bird Park. Photo: Georg Wendt/dpa.

A spot of gardening, catching up on unread novels, hiking in South Tyrol? No one knows what the tireless German leader Angela Merkel has planned for retirement as chancellor after Sunday's election.

Her successor in Berlin won't be having such a relaxing time however, at least when it comes to Europe: he or she will have to fill the EU's largest political shoes and – some observers in Brussels hope - push ahead with major EU-wide policies on climate change, migration and digitalization.

Few are expecting radical political change when it comes to dealing with the next chancellor. Polls point to another centrist coalition in the German government, perhaps without the Christian Democrats and and then pulled left by either the SPD the Greens, or both.

What European diplomats who are accustomed to the longtime chancellor’s slow, considered manner will miss however, is her political skill at crunch times and tense late-night talks.

“Merkel's personality and experience were greatly appreciated during budget negotiations and for top EU jobs,” one diplomatic source told on condition of anonymity.

Another Brussels-based diplomat described Merkel as a known entity who valued consensus.

The next chancellor will likely be more focused on domestic affairs at first, the diplomat said, leaving space for France to dominate.

Most major EU initiatives hinge on cooperation between Paris and Berlin, the 750-billion-euro (880-billion-dollar) coronavirus recovery fund being a case in point.

For political expert Jana Puglierin of the European Council on Foreign Relations, Merkel’s stability, and her reluctance to rock the boat also made her a barrier to progress.

From this point of view, she was “a German chancellor with no vision for the future of the EU and without the will to make necessary reforms,” Puglierin wrote in the Internationale Politik magazine this month.

“At the European level, [Merkel] has often shied away from taking clear positions, preferring instead to sit problems out only to end up taking the lowest common denominator solution at the last moment,” the Berlin-based analyst argued.

It’s an image that hits home for some.

“[French President Emmanuel] Macron comes up with these crazy - or should I say bold - ideas, and then Merkel calms him down,” the second diplomatic source said.

Macron's impatience

French media has widely reported on Macron’s apparent impatience with Merkel, and her relative disinterest in making the EU a heftier and more independent foreign policy actor or pushing forward on a Eurozone budget.

On the other hand, her approach endeared her at times to more conservative EU states.

So what could life after Merkel mean for the EU? All three main candidates have vague paid lip service to the European project on the campaign trail, though observers have noted the scant attention paid to foreign affairs in general. It remains to be seen what they would actually do in office.

Merkel’s closest inheritor, fellow conservative and former European parliamentarian Armin Laschet, has professed himself to be more like Macron than the woman he would replace in terms of ambition on European integration, yet is lukewarm on pooling fiscal resources.

Frontrunner Olaf Scholz hails from the centre-left Social Democrats - traditionally more open to reform than Merkel's fiscally hawkish conservative bloc.

Both Laschet and Scholz visited Paris during the campaign, and both have said the city will be their first destination if they become chancellor.

Greens, Christian Democrats

Bigger change would certainly come if the Greens’ candidate Annalena Baerbock found herself in Merkel's chair. She would have a tougher stance on climate issues, but also on China and Russia. Currently lying a distant third in the polls, her bid for the chancellorship, however, is seen as largely over.

The first major testing ground for the new chancellor’s European vision could well be a drive to reform the bloc’s strict debt rules.

France is among those voices calling to loosen up the suspended Growth and Stability Pact, due to be reinstated in 2023.

Changes are deemed necessary by heavily-indebted states concentrated in Europe’s South – Greece, Spain, Italy – and by the European Commission.

Fiscally conservative Germany has been reluctant, and may stay so even if Merkel's party loses the top spot. Scholz indicated last month he wasn’t keen to overhaul the European budgetary pact in a hurry. Earlier this year, Laschet told Bloomberg he wanted to see them reinstated in their old form.

The Social Democrats, however, are open to regularly taking on common EU debt to fund shared projects in the way the recovery fund has. For the Christian Democrats, that is out of the question.

Whatever happens, the formation of the next coalition in Germany will likely take months. And no other big European country seems ready to step into Berlin’s pointe shoes for the German-Franco ballet, as Puglierin pointed out in her article: Italy and Spain are too tied up with domestic affairs.

Macron meanwhile, is likely to try and get the new German leader on side quickly.

As Europe looks to Berlin on Sunday evening, the future - in the words of one Brussels' insider - is "going to be fascinating.”

Missing Merkel: the leader who held Europe together