Call to Europe: Angela Merkel’s departure from German government creates leadership vacuum

ROME | There is a story – perhaps apocryphal – that in the midst of a Cold War crisis, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger asked, “Who do I call if I want to talk to ‘Europe?’ ‘ “

For more than a decade, the answer was simple: German Chancellor Angela Merkel. But now, as Merkel has just retired after 16 years at the helm of Europe’s largest economy, Mr Kissinger’s question is once again topical. And more than relevant – with hot crises brewing with Russia along the continent’s former Cold War divide, with COVID-19 blinding economic policymakers, with both sides of the Atlantic trying to calibrate the Right approach to China, the need for coordinated policies between Washington and its European allies is more urgent than ever.

Because the member states of the European Union hold such significant decision-making power, the executive branch of the EU, the European Commission, has always been weak, especially by the standards of the US Presidency. Many bold policies cannot be implemented if even one member opposes them.

But through every major European crisis in recent years – the continent-wide sovereign debt tightening, waves of European refugee emergencies, the pandemic and Brexit, among others – the EU has been guided to varying degrees by Ms. Merkel’s mark of calm and pragmatism. direction. Now that she’s gone, who can fill this role?

Much of the speculation about Merkel’s replacement as de facto head of the European Union revolves around three or perhaps four personalities: Olaf Scholz, 63, his successor as German Chancellor; French President Emmanuel Macron, 43, now the longest-serving leader of a large European economy; Mario Draghi, 74, Italian Prime Minister who helped save the euro during a well-respected eight-year term as head of the European Central Bank ending in 2019; or maybe even the president of the European Commission, a post currently headed by Ursula von der Leyen, 63, who cut her teeth as Ms Merkel’s defense minister from 2013 to 2019.

“At least for now, the most likely candidates are probably Macron or Draghi, with Scholz likely to gain more influence as he establishes himself over time,” said Jon Worth, a commentator, member of the European Policy Group of the World Economic Forum, and professor at the College of Europe based in Belgium. “But that doesn’t mean they’ll play the part Merkel played.”

According to Lorenzo Codogno, founder and chief economist of LC Macro Advisors and visiting professor at the London School of Economics, Merkel’s departure is likely to reduce Germany’s influence in the short term, while the stature of Mr Macron and Mr Draghi’s could increase the importance of France and Italy, respectively, at least for a while.

“At the end of November, Macron and Draghi met in Rome to finalize the ‘Treaty of the Quirinale’ aimed at strengthening ties between the two countries, stabilizing the EU and possibly consolidating their countries’ role within the EU “said Codogno. “I think it helps both countries, but especially Italy. We might end up seeing France, Italy and Germany on a level playing field for now.

Mr Macron received a fortuitous advantage in the draw to be Europe’s new voice: France will assume the rotating presidency of the European Union for six months in January, and Mr Macron has already tried to put his imprint on how the -Merkel UE post should work. This builds on France’s traditional desire to make the EU a stronger force in the fields of global politics and security, including the promotion of an exclusively European defense force that many in Washington fear. for a long time that it would compete with and drain the resources of the NATO transatlantic alliance.

With Ms Merkel now out of sight and with traditionally Euro-skeptical Britain now completely out of the EU after Brexit, Mr Macron may have more leeway for his vision of a more powerful and centralized EU.

France’s objective for its presidency of the EU is “to move forward towards a powerful Europe in the world, fully sovereign, free of its choices and responsible for its own destiny”, declared Mr. Macron during a meeting. press conference in Paris on December 9.

“I would say that we must move from a Europe of cooperation within our borders to a powerful Europe in the world, fully sovereign, free of its choices and master of its destiny”, he added.

The problem with Mr Macron and Mr Draghi, according to Mr Worth, Mr Codogno and other analysts, is that neither can hold their current position for long. Mr Macron faces a delicate re-election race in April 2022, as much speculation circulates that Mr Draghi could step down as early as next month to replace Sergio Mattarella as president, head of state Italian.

The German Mr Scholz is not well known internationally and is still in the process of settling his post as head of the German government. Ms Von der Leyen, on the other hand, has too low a profile and may have too many technical and bureaucratic obligations to assert the kind of informal authority and gravity that Ms Merkel had.

Jacob Kirkegaard, senior researcher in the Brussels office of the German Marshall Fund of the United States, said the stakes are high for the EU during the post-Merkel transition period, as the bloc of 27 countries continues to face the coronavirus pandemic, challenges to the rule of law in member states, including Poland and Hungary, and rising political and economic tensions between the United States and Russia and China.

“The EU could simply move forward without a pan-European leader like Merkel, who needed a few years and specific conditions to become this role herself,” Kirkegaard said. “Historically, it’s the norm to be without anyone in this role. We are unlikely to see another great European leader who will be in office for more than eight years, let alone 16 as was the case with Merkel. ”

Mr Worth said it wouldn’t be easy to replace Ms Merkel, anyway.

“Merkel does not have weigh in on every issue, but when she did, she was cautious and thoughtful and not an ideologue and her decisions carried weight, ”he said. “There is no easy or automatic replacement for it this way, and it could be for the foreseeable future.”


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