‘Opportunity to recalibrate’: Who will rule in the post-Merkel EU?

Exit of the EU's great deal-maker raises prospect for new configurations of power

At her first European Council meeting in December 2005, Angela Merkel emerged in the early hours ‘the deal-maker’ in brokering a budget accord. Photograph: Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images

At her first European Council meeting in December 2005, Angela Merkel emerged in the early hours ‘the deal-maker’ in brokering a budget accord. Photograph: Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images

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It was a different world when Angela Merkel walked into her first European Council meeting on December 15th, 2005.

Around the table to discuss issues including terrorism, migration, and the Middle East were Silvio Berlusconi for Italy, Tony Blair for Britain, Jacques Chirac for France and Bertie Ahern for Ireland.  

Merkel emerged in the early hours “the deal-maker” in brokering a budget accord, The Irish Times reported at the time. And she went on to outlast them all, becoming the one person in the council who, when she speaks, everyone stops and listens.

“The great characteristic of Germany over the years within the EU is predictability and steadiness,” a diplomat recalls. “She is the personification of that, she has the gravitas.”

During her tenure Merkel solidified a Franco-German alliance that does not decide policy in the European Union, but from which proposals need support in order to succeed.

The size, stability and economic might of Germany, along with Merkel’s personal qualities, made her a bulwark in a series of crises that rocked but ultimately solidified the union, from the global financial crisis and ensuing challenge to the euro, to the migration surge, to Brexit and the Covid-19 pandemic.

Even if the next German leader is politically weaker domestically and lacking Merkel’s personal stature, they will still [be] the heir of their country’s weighty EU role

Politicians, ambassadors, insiders and analysts are now looking to the German election campaign to assess who might be her successor, and the implications for the EU.

Coalition negotiations in Germany take time, and it’s expected that the new chancellor may not debut in Brussels until some months after the September 26th election, perhaps not until France has assumed the EU presidency in 2022.

A constraint on Paris’s EU ambitions is seen to have been lifted by the departure of Britain, a traditional counterweight. With a potential period of German uncertainty, and an enterprising President Emmanuel Macron under pressure to show leadership and results ahead of his own impending election, some expect France to drive the agenda for a time.

Several observers point out that it is not the German election but the French, in which Macron will be challenged by the far-right leader Marine Le Pen, that has the real potential to change the EU.

Even if the next German leader is politically weaker domestically and lacking Merkel’s personal stature, they will still enter the council chamber the heir of their country’s weighty EU role.

German chancellor Angela Merkel and British prime minister Tony Blair at EU summit in Brussels in December 2005. Photograph: Thierry Roge/Reuters
German chancellor Angela Merkel and British prime minister Tony Blair at EU summit in Brussels in December 2005. Photograph: Thierry Roge/Reuters

If that person is Armin Laschet of Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union party, EU capitals expect continuity. If current number two in polls Annalena Baerbock of the Green Party was the shock successor, German policy in the EU would be expected to remain broadly consistent, though perhaps with a tougher line towards authoritarian regimes due to human rights concerns. 

It would however be seismic for the EU’s green ambitions.

The issue of climate change has bookended Merkel’s time in office. In her first summit, leaders agreed it was “likely to have major negative global environmental, economic and social implications” and resolved to find ways to limit global warning.

Yet in her final federal press conference, in the middle of a summer of extreme weather events worldwide and catastrophic flooding at home, Merkel acknowledged not enough had been done.

“We shouldn’t pretend that we haven’t done anything, but it’s true that not enough has been done to reach the aim of staying well under [a global average temperature rise of] two degrees and as close to 1.5 degrees as possible,” she told reporters. “That is not just true of Germany, but of many countries across the world, which is why we need to increase the tempo.”

Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi with German chancellor Angela Merkel at Palazzo Chigi before a dinner in December 2005 in Rome, Italy. Photograph: Franco Origlia/Getty Images
Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi with German chancellor Angela Merkel at Palazzo Chigi before a dinner in December 2005 in Rome, Italy. Photograph: Franco Origlia/Getty Images

The EU is now about to release unprecedented amounts of cash in a belated scramble to prevent climate change reaching catastrophic levels. A Green at the helm of the EU’s manufacturing powerhouse would turbo-charge the power of that political bloc in Brussels just as the decisions are made on how to concretely achieve the drastic emissions cuts needed to reach the EU’s climate goals.

Short of that, a Green presence in a German coalition would also be meaningful. If the timing is right, and with the United States now onside, the German election could build momentum ahead of the crunch Cop26 United Nations climate summit in Glasgow in November.

“On the green agenda, I think a lot could could depend upon the outcome of the elections,” said Rafael Loss of the European Council on Foreign Relations. “The decisions that will be taken in the next four years might mean that we make or break the ambition that we get to net zero by 2050.”

The Hague has corralled northern members, including Ireland, into temporary alliances that have demonstrated the potential for new configurations to drive EU policy

It’s also a belated crunch time in regard to the rule of law issue. Viktor Orban’s establishment of an illiberal regime in Hungary is seen to have been abetted by a non-confrontational approach by Merkel that reflects a broader German attachment to dialogue as a cure-all in international affairs. The concern is that this has led to Hungary’s emboldened ally, Poland, rejecting the EU’s legal order, and to the continual blocading by both of consensus on foreign policy issues.

The Netherlands, whose prime minister Mark Rutte will now be the longest serving EU leader alongside Orban, has shown itself willing to be brusquely confrontational on the rule of law issue, and has warned it is prepared to continue this role to police the flow of EU Covid-19 recovery funds.

The Hague has also successfully corralled northern members, including Ireland, into temporary alliances that have demonstrated the potential for new configurations to drive policy in the EU. In Italy, Mario Draghi is at the helm, a figure who has attended European councils for a decade due to his former role at the head of the European Central Bank and who widely commands respect. He is limited by the lack of a political party and because his time in power is expected to be short, but his tenure is seen as a chance for Italy to reclaim its place as a leading power in the EU.

Today, German conservative economic orthodoxy no longer holds sway, and future challenges may play to other countries’ strengths. The disintegration of security in Afghanistan, which is expected to drive a new rush of people towards the EU’s borders, may put Mediterranean states centre stage.

“I think having four or five big dominant big states is healthy for the smaller states. Because if you have a problem with Berlin you can go to Madrid, or you can go to Rome. You can hopefully, if the Polish system stabilises, go to Warsaw,” says Alexander Clarkson, lecturer in German and European and international Studies at King’s College London. 

“I think this might be an opportunity to recalibrate our thoughts a little bit about how strong Germany really is in the EU, and who else calls the shots as well.”

Tomorrow: Lara Marlowe on the potential impact of Angela Merkel’s departure on Franco-German relations.

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