French President Emmanuel Macron is preparing to lead Europe when German Chancellor Angela Merkel steps down next fall from the post she has held for the past 16 years. In a European Union without Merkel, Macron will be the leader in command of a great country with more experience and with a project to make the continent a power in a world marked by rivalry between the United States and China.
The President of the French Republic could be consecrated, after the German legislative elections in September, as de facto president of the EU. But their ambitions may be weighed down by mistakes in the face of the pandemic, and the social and electoral consequences that these mistakes have in France. His European future is subject to re-election in the 2022 presidential elections.
“Macron can only become the president of Europe if he is legitimate against the French. And the balance is still not clear ”, says Dominique Moïsi, special advisor of the Institut Montaigne think tank, and author of books such as The geopolitics of emotions. “History hesitates, hesitates.”
The Franco-German Council of Ministers on Friday was another stage in the countdown before Merkel’s departure and the elections from which her replacement will emerge. The new chancellor will be someone with less experience, fewer contacts and less European and international influence than the woman who has dominated the European scene in the last decade and a half.
“Nature feels a horror of emptiness: in tomorrow’s Europe the German vision that Merkel defends will no longer be present, nor will the British brake [tras el Brexit]”, Explains Moïsi. “But this room for maneuver can be inconvenient. The other European countries could feel threatened by a France too conscious of its centrality and a president too conscious of its value ”.
Another unexpected factor is the possible election as Italian Prime Minister of the former head of the European Central Bank, Mario Draghi. Besides the German Chancellor, Draghi is the other leader who has defined the contemporary EU and, despite lacking the experience of government of the French president, can overshadow him as a European leader in Europe without Merkel.
Macron was 12 when the Berlin Wall fell and Merkel, a physicist from the German Democratic Republic, entered politics. When Merkel was elected chancellor in 2005, the Frenchman was 28 and a senior civil servant who had completed his studies at the National School of Administration a year and a half earlier.
Merkel, during years of Macron’s professional training, dealt with the euro and refugee crisis, and saw several presidents of the French Republic pass: Jacques Chirac, Nicolas Sarkozy, François Hollande. Macron has been the fourth.
Arriving at the Elysee Palace after campaigning with the European flag more than the French, in 2017, Macron had a clear idea. To convince Merkel to push for the economic integration of the EU, France had to be credible and start by reforming itself.
Macron, in the first part of his five-year mandate, promoted reforms such as the labor market or the public railways. “At the beginning of his presidency, it would have been said that it was evident that he was going to replace Merkel: he was the modern equivalent of Bonaparte, popular, beautiful, dynamic, triumphant,” recalls Moïsi. But his plans to re-found the EU found little echo in Berlin. In France, meanwhile, the momentum of the first year ran into the Yellow Vest revolt and widespread social unrest.
Something substantial changed with the pandemic and the biggest recession in recent decades. Despite the initial lack of coordination, the Europeans approved in the summer of 2020 a recovery plan of 750,000 million euros.
Break the taboo
Merkel, who after the 2008 crisis imposed austerity measures on southern European countries, defended in 2020 a fund that benefited the victims of that time, and accepted the common debt. Paris savored it as a triumph: the health and economic crisis had succeeded in breaking the German taboo.
The paradox, for the French president, is that the European advances of the last year coincide with the difficulties in France due to the management of the pandemic and the feeling that this crisis accelerates the loss of weight of France against Germany, a constant fear, as minimum, since the fall of the Wall and the reunification of the two Germanies.
In France, about 1,200 people per million inhabitants have died from covid-19; in Germany, 729. The French economy contracted by 8.3% in 2020; the German, 5%. While one of the pioneering vaccines – that of the company Pfizer-BioNTech – is partly German, the Pasteur Institute in Paris has abandoned its main project and the French-American Sanofi will not be ready until the end of the year.
It is unknown what effects the management of the second year of the pandemic and the vaccine race will have on Macron’s position in the EU. His popularity rate in France, close to 40%, is higher than that of his predecessors François Hollande and Nicolas Sarkozy at this stage of the mandate.
Before the meeting with Merkel, Macron held an interview with the Prime Minister of the state of Bavaria, Markus Söder, by videoconference on Friday. Söder is, together with the new leader of the Christian Democratic Union, Armin Laschet, one of the possible successors of the chancellor at the head of the German government.
“We work hand in hand with the Chancellor, with a lot of trust and friendship”, declared Macron at a press conference with Merkel, “and until the last second I will work in this spirit with her.”
One of the reasons for friction between Macron and Merkel’s successor in the German Chancellery may be the EU’s role as a middle power between the United States and China. Macron speaks of “strategic autonomy”, a concept that causes suspicion among the most Atlanticists in Berlin, as they fear that Paris wants to distance Europeans from NATO and use the EU as a platform to project French military power.
At the Franco-German Security and Defense Council, organized by Berlin and held this Friday by videoconference, Merkel and Macron discussed the projects for a European fighter plane and tank, which still face obstacles in matters such as the distribution of tasks between partners, leadership and funding. The chancellor also announced Germany’s participation in the next ministerial meeting of African and European countries on the situation in the Sahel, where France leads the European presence in the fight against terrorism. Both initiatives reflect the will of France and Germany, engines of European construction, to adjust their positions on military matters.
This occurs in the middle of the debate in Europe about the military role of the EU and its relationship with NATO, at the time of the arrival of a new Administration in Washington that is more pro-European and Atlanticist than that of Trump.
Merkel spoke after the meeting on “European sovereignty” and the “need for a defense policy in Europe.” Macron repeated the term and added: “It seems to us a necessity and the Franco-German couple, from an industrial, geopolitical and strategic point of view, is its core.”