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A French Perspective on the Future of Europe After Merkel

Analysis - 3 November 2021

Angela Merkel is leaving the European political arena after 16 years in power. As the French measure the greatness of a leader in reforms, power symbolism and quality of rhetoric, in some ways, for them, Merkel’s departure is a non-event. As far as the French are concerned, Merkel took advantage of Shröder's austerity reforms but did not invest in the future of the country, she always refused attributes of power and delivered rather boring speeches. However, as leader of a country that grew to become a major European power, Angela Merkel embodied stability and steadiness. Her departure could make way for the French vision of a powerful Europe ("Europe puissance"), an ambition that president Macron has been aspiring to since coming into office. 

Merkel, a visionless manager? 

Chancellor Konrad Adenauer was the architect of Germany’s integration into the West, Helmut Kohl achieved the Reunification and Gerhard Schröder established labor market reforms that restored the competitiveness of the German economy. What will Angela Merkel be remembered for? The French certainly give her credit for making Germany prosperous and for leading Europe through many challenges, from the Eurozone crisis to tensions with Russia over Ukraine, from the pandemic to the refugee crisis. But even though Angela Merkel proved to be a demanding and rigorous leader, she has been criticized for her slow and unilateral decision-making, failing to to discuss several crucial matters with France first, such as the decisions to phase out nuclear energy or to welcome refugees. She has also been criticized for reacting to circumstances without proper foresight, indicating a lack of vision for Europe. The French therefore see her more as the ultimate crisis manager rather than as a visionary leader. 
 
However, as illustrated in her Bruges speech in 2010, her vision is simply different from that of the French, who tend to see the construction of the EU as a way to bring back their "Grandeur passée" (glorious past). For Merkel "Europe is about rational thinking, Europe is about competition and the internal market, but Europe is also and will remain a matter of the heart." Before being a project of sovereignty, the EU was first and foremost an economic project for Merkel, based on the market and free competition. The Crisis Chancellor ("Krisenkanzlerin") did not only benefit from different shocks, she also used them to prepare the European Union for the world ahead. The nuclear phase-out, the reception of refugees and the support for the European recovery plan were three historical decisions that each participated in Merkel’s clear-visioned management of a powerful country at the heart of the continent.
 
Contrary to what the French may think, the German energy transition (commonly known as Energiewende) is not just about getting rid of nuclear power. It also includes a gradual phase-out of coal and aims to accelerate the development of renewable energies, in order to make Europe a climate neutral and energy-independent continent.

By revealing Germany’s capacity to integrate nearly one million refugees, Angela Merkel demonstrated that Europe’s demographic decline was neither inevitable nor fatal.

This is the very logic that underlies the European Green Deal today. Opening the borders to refugees in 2015 cannot be reduced to a merely humanitarian act either. This decision allowed Germany to respond to its population’s demographic decline, a trend identified since the beginning of the century as the main long-term threat to German and European prosperity. By revealing Germany’s capacity to integrate nearly one million refugees, Angela Merkel demonstrated that Europe’s demographic decline was neither inevitable nor fatal. If anything, the much-needed reform of the Dublin Regulation could draw inspiration from the success of this integration policy. 

Furthermore, Angela Merkel’s decision to support the extraordinary European recovery plan following the pandemic is not just a "pivot to Europe" on the part of the Chancellor. Germany’s economic prospects have weakened over the past few years. Germany’s GDP growth is 2.5% this year, according to the latest forecasts of the IFO institute, which is twice less than the 5.3% growth in the eurozone.Such signals suggest that Germany’s "golden age" is coming to an end. The highly export-dependent German industry is feeling the full force of the contraction in world trade due to rising Sino-American tensions. The recentering of the German economy on the single market therefore requires it to fight effectively against the risks of implosion revealed by the pandemic. 
 
"Germany will only do well if Europe does well". In other words, over these 16 years, Angela Merkel has made it possible for German interests to be in perfect alignment with the interests of Europe.

European unity at the expense of the courage to change

Merkel is a great European, but her will to preserve European unity in the midst of crisis has for too long outweighed her audacity to change. Even if Olaf Scholz, Merkel’s successor, is likely to continue her work at the European level, this new chancellorship holds out the promise for a reorientation towards Europe.
 
How can European unity be preserved after Merkel? She grew up in the East, in the "other Europe" that France has always had difficulty understanding and that has too often looked down to. Her personal background explains why Merkel has sought to maintain a constructive relationship with the governments of Poland and Hungary despite their discrepancies, especially when it comes to the rule of law. 

It also explains why the Chancellor has always opposed centering the European Union around only a small group of states. Given the authoritarian tendencies of certain Eastern European states, her departure could thus accentuate the division between Eastern and Western Europe, making progress on a common political project increasingly difficult. Maintaining European cohesion in the wake of Angela Merkel's departure therefore implies relaunching the dynamics of the internal market, to reel these governments in. Concrete projects, such as the unification of European economic law through the establishment of a European Business Code, would help work towards this objective. 

The arrival of a new generation of decision-makers in Germany could allow for a "reset" of the European project and the affirmation of a more sovereign Europe. 

At the same time, the arrival of a new generation of decision-makers in Germany could allow for a "reset" of the European project and the affirmation of a more sovereign Europe. The Conference on the Future of Europe should make it possible to overcome the "trauma" of 2005 with the French and Dutch rejections of the Treaty for the Constitution of Europe and help to involve citizens in the reform of EU treaties. 
 
In terms of European strategic autonomy, long considered as an illusion by the Germans until the Afghan crisis revealed it to be a necessity, post-Merkel Germany could take a leading role. As we have shown in Institut Montaigne's note Quelle Allemagne après Merkel? (Germany After Merkel?), the country is increasingly owning up to its geopolitical weight. Its military spending now exceeds that of France, and now convinced of American disengagement and the Chinese threat, it is preparing to step up on the international scene. Germany can now become, slowly but surely, a driving force in the construction of a European defense system, which France has been advocating for years. The commitment of the various German political parties to a "European army"is a case in point.
 
If Europe is strong today, it is in part thanks to the milestones that Angela Merkel has discretely set over her 16 years in office. But it would be illusory to expect Germany to make grand speeches or to define a new vision for Europe by itself. Scholz will surely accompany a number of European projects currently carried by France, such as strategic autonomy, the Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism (CBAM) or a European minimum wage. This is less about Germany yielding to France’s ideas, as it is about an intrinsic change in the country’s mindset. The clear awareness of the American withdrawal and the new internal political landscape with the blazing breakthrough of the SPD contribute to this shift. This new direction reflects both Germany’s understanding of its own interests and the German "Zeitgeist". Scholz will however likely leave it to President Macron to appropriate European reforms, to embody European power and to express himself through the grandiose speeches he so loves. 
 
 

Copyright: Tobias SCHWARZ / POOL / AFP

 

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