The election this Saturday of Armin Laschet as the new president of the CDU marks the beginning of the countdown to a new era in both Germany and the European Union. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has ruled out running in the general elections on September 26, is the community club’s longest-serving leader and one of the most responsible for the EU’s successes and mistakes over the past 15 years. The profile of the new president of the conservative party shows that many Germans are betting on continuity after four terms of the chancellor. But with or without Laschet at the head of a future government, Merkel’s departure will mark a before and after in Brussels. The Eurasia Group think tank ranks the end of the Merkel era as one of the 10 risks the planet faces in 2021, along with others as high as political tension in the US or the economic impact of the pandemic.
The covid-19 pandemic, especially deadly in Germany during the winter wave, threatens to tarnish Angela Merkel’s popularity in her own country in the final stretch of her term. But in the eyes of Brussels, the German Chancellor has already put a finishing touch on her European legacy in 2020 by finishing off a six-month presidency of the EU full of historical achievements, with the European recovery fund as the icing on the cake that crowns three decades of ups and downs in the relationship between Berlin and the community institutions.
Nothing in Merkel’s personal and political trajectory anticipated that her leadership would conclude with a surge of Europeanism comparable to that of the founders of the Union, figures revered in Brussels, but totally alien to a chancellor grown and trained in the Soviet bloc until the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989, when she was 35 years old.
Her arrival to power in 2005 made her the first chancellor of Germany since the end of World War II who did not have Europeanism among her hallmarks. But after years of evident mistrust of the European Commission and neglect of the so-called “community method” – which tips the balance in favor of Brussels and to the detriment of capitals – Merkel has ended up placing Europe at the center of almost all its policies, from migration to health and economic response to the pandemic. “Merkel’s legacy is mixed,” says Constanze Stelzenmüller, an analyst at the Brookings Institute research center. “His decision to open Germany’s borders to millions of refugees in 2015 was an act of humanity, but it allowed the rise of the AfD far right.”
The refugee crisis marked one of the lowest points in Merkel’s popularity and the first time her leadership faltered in Berlin and Brussels. But he managed to overcome it, even if it was at the cost of sponsoring an agreement of doubtful legality with Turkey that stopped the Syrian exodus to Europe in its tracks. Except for that bump, his leadership at the head of the EU has remained indisputable and only in his final stretch has he shared it in part with French President Emmanuel Macron.
The chancellor has largely supervised the negotiations for the UK’s exit from the EU, giving top priority, to London’s surprise, to protecting the integrity of the European internal market. His critics reproach him, on the other hand, for the tolerance he has shown towards the authoritarian drift within the club, in particular that of the Hungarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán, whose party continues to be part of the European People’s Party thanks, in large part, to to the protection of Berlin.
Alberto Alemanno, a professor at the École des Hautes Études Commerciales in Paris, believes that “Merkel deserves recognition for having kept the EU together and afloat through numerous major crises, but her leadership has never been driven by genuine European interest but for German interests ”. Unlike previous chancellors, Merkel was from the beginning reluctant to any transfer of power to the EU. The chancellor never hid her displeasure at the possible suppression of the presence of one member per country in the European Commission to create a more agile and federal Executive (possibility, for now, frozen). And the creation of bodies as federal as the ECB (where the vote of each country weighs the same and not even the president of the Bank of Germany has a permanent position, but a rotating one) would hardly have seen the light of day with Merkel in the chancellery.
During her tenures, the German leader has opted for an intergovernmental route, which has turned the European Council (where government leaders sit) into the true engine of community activity, relegating the European Commission and dodging, whenever possible , to the European Parliament.
His reaction was especially blunt during the euro crisis. Between 2008 and 2012, the chancellor stopped any initiative based on solidarity and made financial bailouts conditional on draconian adjustments and punitive austerity measures in countries in difficulty. “He hesitated and did not dare to tell his voters that the time had come for Germany to exercise leadership in Europe. Instead, it postponed a solution to the Greek crisis that ended up infecting the whole of Europe, “said the Spanish Foreign Minister, Arantxa González Laya, last year.
At the beginning of the pandemic, several European capitals, including Madrid, trembled at the risk that Berlin would react again with a man for himself. The closure of the German borders and the ban on the export of medical supplies fueled the worst omens. But Merkel concluded that the Covid-19 crisis required a different response, both due to the risk of internal rupture of the European internal market and due to the instability of an international scene dominated by leaders such as Trump, Xi, Putin or Erdogan.
His Europeanist conversion became clear on May 18, 2020, during one of the many bilateral summits with the French president in power. From Nicolas Sarkozy to Emmanuel Macron, passing through François Hollande, the tenants of the Elysee arrived at these appointments resigned to run into the No (No) from Merkel to any ambitious proposal. The Berlin-Paris tandem, essential to give traction to Brussels, seemed definitely disjointed. But that Monday in May, in the midst of the first great wave of the pandemic, the German Chancellor surprised Macron with the go-ahead to a European recovery fund of at least half a billion euros.
The proposal involved crossing the Rubicon, both for Merkel and for the EU. For the first time, the community club would go into debt jointly to inject subsidies into the countries hardest hit by a crisis as sudden as it was violent. And for the first time in three decades, the chancellor led an initiative that represents a leap forward in European integration and potentially opens the way to unprecedented fiscal and political union.
Professor Alemanno believes that, despite everything, the chancellor is late. “Merkel may have saved Europe, but she is also responsible for making it obsolete, without vision and in poor condition to face the global transformations that are already affecting our continent and its inhabitants.”
The balance of its international presence also has lights and shadows, according to Dr. Stelzenmüller. “She has been a convinced Atlanticist and has managed to maintain the European consensus for sanctions against Russia. But as for China, it has put Germany’s economic interests ahead of human rights and geopolitical considerations. “