Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Angela Merkel: Independent but not alone

Rather than going under, the EU under German and French leadership will likely move forward again.

Angela Merkel speaks to the media ahead of an EU Council meeting in Brussels in April. (Photo: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)
Angela Merkel speaks to the media ahead of an EU Council meeting in Brussels in April. (Photo: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)
Published 6 Jun 2017 

The times are not easy for German Chancellor Angela Merkel. She faces a national election in September and has assumed the mantel of primus inter pares in Europe since the euro crisis. And now, in the immortal words of another European leader to an American president, she is seeing a US president 'going wobbly' on America's anchoring role in the West.

But for Merkel and Germany, European help, especially from France, might be at hand.

In a recent election speech, the Chancellor won international attention by declararing independence from the US. Leading pundits such as Gideon Rachman in the Financial Times criticised Merkel for undermining the Atlantic alliance. That is, at best, an incomplete reading of what she said in a Munich beer hall, not historically a place for ringing assertions of international responsibility and its national prerequisites. In fact, the biggest part of her speech was addressed to Germany’s European partners and even more so to her own citizens (not surprising in an election year).

To her European partners, Merkel made a call for more unity, less nationalist bickering and a blunt warning to dedicate more resources to the strengthening of European structures. Two of the most pressing security issues, Islamic terror and migration from Africa and the Middle East, will have to be taken care by greatly strengthened European efforts. Here Washington cannot be asked to carry the main burden. In practical terms it will mean better EU internal security and intelligence cooperation as well as deeper involvement to neutralise the sectarian and ideological spillover from the killing fields of the Middle East.

In this context, rather than a source of glee, the present state of a steadily more dis-United Kingdom should be a cause for sadness. Increased European security must necessarily also include British military might, particularly in a time of US isolationism. If you have seen anything lately from Theresa May or Jeremy Corbyn on this overriding issue, let me know. I haven’t.

In the remarks aimed at her citizens, Merkel said Germany’s role as mere Kassenwart ('treasurer') of the EU is over. Germany’s traditional function as strict fiscal disciplinarian of the Eurozone, worried more about inflation than overall stability, is being shed in the interest of the single market, the real bedrock of both German prosperity and Europe’s position on the global stage.

That will be costly. It might also open Merkel up to attacks from far-right nationalists about German taxpayers having to foot the bill for ‘lazy southerners’. However, that risk appears manageable in view of recent European election results showing that you can actually win votes with calls for 'more Europe'. Also, by being positive on Europe, Merkel neutralises her election opponent’s image as former president of the EU parliament.

Meanwhile in France, Emmanuel  Macron is in the midst of his third and most amazing political surge. First was the meteoric rise from unknown to leading presidential contender, then his pro-European pounding of the shrilly nationalist LePen for the presidential crown and now, a week before the first round in the French parliamentary elections, the real possibility that his start-up of a political party might have an overall, or at least a working, majority in parliament. Walking around on election ground zero, both in a middle class part of central Paris (Clichy, Batignolles) as well as in the traditional leftist stronghold of Nanterre in the Parisian banlieue, I am struck by the energy and number of ‘Macronista’ touting pamphlets and engaging everybody in earnest discussions about why and how ‘La République en marche’ could get France back on its national and European feet.

When a rejuvenated French government joins Germany in another EU renaissance, things could happen rather quickly. There are rumours that greatly increased European investments for stabilising the Eurozone are being planned in Berlin, Paris and Brussels. This will probably be in the form of EU-issued euro bonds, which would lower borrowing costs for southern EU members while at the same time giving the Union authorities more control over national expenditure.

With regard to European security, French military muscle appears totally indispensable. In his recent imperial show for the visiting Russian President, Macron went so far as to mention his, and thus Europe's, red lines in Syria: any further chemical attack would lead to aerial attacks against Assad. Whether Chancellor Merkel is yet ready to go that far, given Germany’s historically rooted ambiguity to military endeavours abroad, remains to be seen.

What has definitely changed over the last months is the European narrative. Rather than going under, the EU under German and French leadership will likely move forward again. In line with its unique character as less than a traditional state but more than a union of states, this happens when a decisive majority within the EU concludes that internal and external challenges can only be met by more integration. Such a watershed has likely been passed, despite nationalist obstruction on the inside (Hungary, Poland) and on the outisde American isolationism and global abdication personified by Donald the deal un-maker.


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