Merkel turns to Kant to help articulate her vision for the EU

Europe Letter: The Franco-German alliance is thriving and driving the EU forward

Not surprisingly, Angela Merkel had reservations about Emmanuel Macron programme. Photograph: Carsten Koall/ POOL/EPA

Not surprisingly, Angela Merkel had reservations about Emmanuel Macron programme. Photograph: Carsten Koall/ POOL/EPA

 

 “He who has no goals must endure his fate; he who has a purpose can shape it.” – Immanuel Kant

On Sunday the German chancellor broke her silence in a revealing interview in Frankfurter Allgemeine, setting out in some detail her vision of the shape of the EU and its immediate challenges.

It was a long-awaited reply – not exactly a dialectic, more a duet – to/with Emmanuel Macron who has been blazing his own radical way. And who has “purpose” in no small measure, vaulting ambitions for the union.

As an afterthought, the next day, Angela Merkel quoted apositly from Kant, not so much a personal statement, I suspect, as a broader expression of an imperative for the EU as a whole and guiding rationale for the Franco-German engine that is once again driving it forward.

I am with you, Emmanuel, the chancellor was saying. The response to Brexit and the rise of populism, manifest most recently in Italy and Slovenia in recent days, has to be to move forward, to integrate. Inertia is fatal.

Not surprisingly, Merkel had reservations about the Macron programme, as much about what is politically realisable and the level of the French president’s ambition as with issues of principle.

So she acknowledged the need to give the union an enhanced and permanent vehicle to assist member states in difficulty, a buffer in any future financial crises. But she did so by suggesting a means of raising cheap loans centrally, rather than creating a big pot of member-state cash to redistribute.

The vehicle: turning the European Stability Mechanism, the euro zone’s rescue fund, into a European Monetary Fund (EMF), with the power to issue loans subject to commercial criteria and strict compliance of the receiving state with structural reforms.

Debt union

Cohesion among members of the single currency bloc was important – Italy please note – but “solidarity among euro partners should never lead to a debt union, rather it must be about helping others to help themselves”, she insisted. German discipline without its taxpayers having to contribute.

But Merkel’s plan “is an implicit apology for past German intransigence on economic policy, and signals that Germany wants to return to its old role as a bridge-builder”, academic Constanze Stelzenmüller has written in response to much “pot-half-empty” negative commentary.

It’s an approach that Ireland and its allies in the fiscally prudent Hanseatic League will welcome, not least, Pascal Donohoe will note, because of Merkel’s insistence that the fund would remain intergovernmental, under the control of capitals rather than the European Commission.

She has also taken on board the argument that the euro zone lacks its own fiscal capacity – a pot of cash to invest in states hit by asymmetric shocks , like Ireland by Brexit, a commentary by the German business newspaper Handelsblatt suggests. But only on a relatively small scale – €20-€30 billion – and focused on digital investment – an “innovation budget for the euro zone”.

The German leader backed Macron more squarely on EU defence integration. Europe should have its own military intervention forces for rapid military action in global hotspots.with a “common strategic military culture”, she said. But she made it clear – again Dublin will be pleased to hear – that any such forces must remain strictly under control of capitals. No European army.

And there was an acknowledgment to the more sceptical French that perhaps Germany had gone too far in demanding ambitious solidarity in asylum-seeker-sharing. The EU should give member states the choice whether to take in asylum seekers from frontline countries or to help pay for their care instead, she added, in a concession to Hungary and Poland, which have opposed binding EU quotas on migrant-sharing.

Deadlocked

Both the latter have, however, also made clear they reject the idea of “fines” for not accepting their share of refugees and the prospects for reform of the Dublin regulations remain deadlocked. They are also adamant that Merkel’s idea that the EU should have its own border police and a pan-European migration agency to evaluate asylum applications is a non-runner. Immigration policing will remain under national control.

Merkel’s interview has given new substantive flesh to the Franco-German relationship and a sense of political realism and direction that Macron’s flights of fancy lack.

Former EU diplomat Pierre Vimont has written that to be successful this partnership needs to fulfill two conditions: “First, it requires, from the start, a strong commitment from Berlin and Paris to achieve, at whatever the cost, a solid compromise acceptable for both sides. The French call this an ‘obligation of result’.

“Second, from that bilateral deal the Franco-German tandem must be able to carry along enough union members to make it into a European agreement,” he says. Merkel, it would seem, is making that possible.

Ahead of the June EU summit, the two leaders will meet again for their own mini-summit at the Meseberg Palace outside Berlin.

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