The Crisis Manager Departs
Angela Merkel had the advantage that during her 16 years at the helm, Germany was spared the economic and political upheaval many of its neighbors experienced, making her brokering EU leadership possible. Her successors may not be so lucky.
For 16 years, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has shaped the dynamics of the European Union, more than any other European head of state. This was not only due to Berlin’s economic and political weight, but also very much due to Merkel’s personality. Stoic, pragmatic, and with a lot of patience she was often able to mediate between opposing demands and interests and to position herself as a central figure when it came to brokering workable compromises.
That does not mean that her approaches have always been met with unanimous approval, however. In the eyes of many Central and Eastern Europeans, she often served as a laudable counterweight to French President Emmanuel Macron—also by ensuring that Germany always strongly advocated bringing all EU member states on board rather than moving ahead with only a few. By contrast, her management of the refugee crisis in 2015 faced staunch opposition—especially from the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, and Poland, the so-called Visegrád four.
Then again, the “frugal four” mostly northern EU member states (the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, and Austria) felt well-represented by Merkel’s leadership. But Berlin’s U-turn on common EU debt to jointly tackle the economic consequences of the COVID-19 crisis in May 2020 was received with extreme reluctance and great concern. Southern member states, however, welcomed her change of mind precisely because it contrasted starkly with her handling of the eurozone crisis a decade earlier—when she was vilified across southern Europe as a harbinger of the Fourth Reich.
Undoubtedly, Merkel’s European policy has as often divided the EU as it has united it. Berlin did not always appear to be the honest broker it claimed to be. During her time in office Merkel made some unilateral decisions against explicit objections from close European partners. The Nord Stream 2 pipeline is the best example.
Preserver of the Status Quo
Among the things Merkel has most often been accused of is her insistence on maintaining the status quo. Unlike Macron, she has never publicly sketched out great visions about the further direction of the European project. Her European policy has been about small, predictable steps to manage the many challenges—in other words, about changing just enough to keep things as they are. Her reflex was always to prevent the EU from falling apart, but without a clear idea about how to move it forward. She successfully adapted the EU to external conditions instead of shaping them.
And yet, the chancellor has always been aware that the differences in competitiveness within the EU and the eurozone, the shortcomings in the construction of the Economic and Monetary Union and the architecture of the Schengen area are unsustainable. In 2012, in a remarkable speech, she came out in favor of a political union—"a European Union with a commission that acts as a European government with the competences we delegate as nation states, with a strong European Parliament—which has always grown stronger in the course of European integration—with a Council of Heads of State and Government as a second chamber and with a European Court of Justice as the supreme European authority, to which we must then also submit." However, since the political reforms that the EU would have needed looked politically impossible to achieve, she instead focused on what was acceptable to the majority—in Germany and Europe.
Leaving a Void
At the end of her tenure, what stands out is that Merkel was able like no other to bring the European heads of state and government to the table and negotiate with them until a viable solution was found for all. She was the EU’s first crisis manager, who steered the EU through the global financial crisis, the eurozone crisis, the migration crisis, through Brexit, Trumpism, and the COVID-19 pandemic—as a beacon of stability in an ever-more polarized Europe. No other EU leader can credibly fill this void after she is gone, at least for now.
Not that Emmanuel Macron won't try. But he has been considered divisive and disruptive by too many in Europe in recent years. His ideas about a rapprochement with President Vladimir Putin’s Russia and him calling NATO “braindead” have cost him much sympathy in Central and Eastern Europe. He certainly clicks better with the southern Europeans and has built some influential alliances in the past, most notably in spring 2020 with Spain’s Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez and former Italian Prime Minister Guiseppe Conte to pressure Germany to support the issuance of “coronabonds.” But unlike Merkel, Macron could never credibly convey that he was concerned with the coherence and unity of the EU-27. Even though his ambitious reform ideas address many of the EU’s unsolved problems, his fellow Europeans often found his proposals too visionary, too far-reaching, and often too… well, French. Macron’s France is a central, but polarizing power.
What’s more, Macron has only a short period of time after the German elections before he himself is faced with an election campaign that will absorb much of his admittedly enormous energies. It depends very much on the outcome of this election in April 2022, and the German one in September 2021, whether Berlin and Paris will be once more able to jointly function as the motor of EU integration. Without a doubt, a victory by the leader of the far-right National Rally, Marine Le Pen, in the French presidential election would be the end of the EU as we know it.
A Macron/Draghi Duo?
Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi is in no position to fill Merkel's shoes, either. Granted, due to his role at the helm of the European Central Bank (2011-2019) as “savior of the euro” he is a credible and trusted advocate of closer European integration. He has rehabilitated Italy after years of being ruled by Euroskeptic populists and wants to turn his country into a major player within the EU. One could easily imagine the Macron/Draghi duo taking advantage of the void after the German election to kick off some ambitious projects, e.g., by pushing the need for stabilization and transfers for the monetary union and advocating an extension of EU borrowing.
However, the more they will strive in this direction, the stronger will be the resistance of the "frugals." Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte has proved adept at rallying the leaders of the Nordic and Baltic states plus Ireland to the common cause against a reform of the eurozone.
But in the end, just like Macron, Draghi might have to concentrate primarily on the home front. His priority must be to revive the Italian economy, which was heavily debt-ridden and low-growth long before the COVID-19 pandemic struck. Italy is riddled by big infrastructure, energy, and technology problems. Wisely spending the €191.5 billion Italy will receive from the Next Generation EU recovery plan is a big challenge. The domestic political situation remains precarious, as Draghi’s ruling coalition is instable and always on the brink of collapse. Draghi would be a legitimate heir to Merkel both for his pro-European vision and for his charisma and ability, but he is weighed down by Italy, with all its weaknesses.
Sánchez the Bridge Builder
Which leaves Spain’s Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez as the potential mover and shaker in the EU after Merkel's departure. Spain has been punching below its weight in Europe for many years, not least because of the unstable domestic political situation. Between 2016 and 2019 Spaniards went to the polls four times. But Sánchez has been striving to make Spain a stronger and more visible player at the EU level since his election in June 2018. Interestingly, he has not tried to turn the Franco-German duo into a trio but has shown himself open to flexible and creative coalitions. Recently, Spain co-authored a non-paper on Strategic Autonomy with the Netherlands—a country at the opposite end of the spectrum to Spain when it comes to European economic and fiscal policy.
In fact, Spain is now actively seeking to build bridges to those countries that are neither geographically nor ideologically close based on very specific interests. By creating and strengthening flexible coalitions to manage political challenges, Spanish European policy stands for a modern approach toward EU cooperation beyond classical camps and alliances. This might be a role model for the future of EU integration in a less German-centered, more divided, and more transactional Europe.
But the examples of Macron, Draghi, and Sánchez clearly illustrate that what made Merkel so strong was the fact that Germany was spared the political upheavals and the massive erosion of the traditional party system that most other European countries experienced. Merkel was able to lead Germany's and the EU's fortunes for 16 years and saw four French presidents, three Spanish prime ministers, and eight Italian prime ministers come and go.
It is by no means certain that the next German chancellor will be fortunate enough to have a similar experience—and whether the German political system will remain reasonably crisis-proof. For the moment, it looks as if the next German government might for the first time involve more than two Bundestag caucuses.
No matter who Merkel's successor as chancellor will be: He or she will be a committed pro-European. But the preconditions for his or her European policy will be different. What’s more, the COVID-19 crisis has brought to light how much Germany has neglected its infrastructure and how little it has invested in digitalization. The crisis has also shown that Germans, too, are not immune to growing Euroskepticism and that further support for EU integration should not be taken for granted.
Berlin’s political elites like to see themselves as “model Europeans” who stand unwaveringly by the European project and try to hold it together by all means. But continuing to drive by sight and clinging to the status quo is no longer an option as the changing internal and external framework conditions will increasingly restrict Germany's scope for action in European policy.
Jana Puglierin is head of the European Council on Foreign Relations’ (ECFR) Berlin office.