With Merkel retired, who is going to be the new European leader?
Europe is facing many challenges in the coming years and it is up to the European politicians to come forward with solutions. For a direction towards these solutions, Europeans and especially European leaders would usually wait with anticipation for one thing: what will Angela Merkel (CDU) do? With her retirement from German politics, the position of conductor of the European orchestra of leaders is up for grabs. Most clearly, there is only one person with enough gravitas and power to do so: French President Emmanuel Macron (LREM). I will discuss three events which point in this direction: the moment for Macron to shine, the new German federal government, and the new Franco-Italian Quirinale Treaty.
I have written about Macron before (link to article) in the context of the Conference on the Future of Europe, describing him as a driving force of European integration. The signs were clear that there was a sound planning resulting from a strong Franco-German axis, but the moment for Germany at the beginning of the Conference has been spoiled. Merkel lost the opportunity to give the starting signal of this event, but Macron’s moment to shine is yet to come. The presidency of the EU will rotate to the French on the 1st of January 2022. During the French presidency, the Conference will come to an end, giving Macron the opportunity to shine and present the new plans for the EU in May 2022. I have to make an assumption there about the then French president, since there will be elections for the office in April 2022. One can safely say that Macron will win another term as president, given the estimates of the experts. And he has yet to officially announce his candidacy, but no one doubts about the wishes of the president to serve another term.
The second event which will make Macron the new ‘Merkel’, so to say, is the new German federal government itself. Three months after the elections, the new German federal government consists of a three-party coalition of SPD, FDP and Die Grünen. This social democrat, liberal and green coalition has never been tried before on a federal level and will face some challenges still unknown in German politics. The Bundeskanzler is former minister of Finance Olaf Scholz of the social democratic SPD. In a way he is the new Merkel of course, but without a doubt not on the European level. He has to face the problem that he simply does not have the seniority and experience over the other European leaders to take Merkel’s place one on one. Besides, leading a three-party coalition will be much more difficult than the two-party Grand Coalitions of CDU and SPD Merkel had to deal with. Furthermore, the key ministries important in the European game are held by different parties and not occupied by the most experienced politicians. The SPD of course holds the Chancellery through Scholz, the Finance ministry is occupied by the liberal FDP and the ministry of Foreign Affairs will have the Greens co-chairman as their new political chief. It was known in Brussels that Merkel had a lot of room to play the European game to the fullest extent; her colleagues in the European Council had respect for her. Scholz does not (yet) have this luxury and will have to earn it. But first all of his effort will go into keeping the three-party coalition together.
Besides Germany, there are of course other major member states of importance. And here, one can see already that Macron knows there is a new role for him to play. I am talking about the recent Quirinale Treaty. It is a treaty between France and Italy, strengthening their bonds and portraying a new joint vision on several European matters, such as new migration rules and enhanced joint defense policies. This was all done outside the context of the EU and marks an end to years of slightly cold diplomatic relations between the two nations. Prime minister Draghi is no stranger in European affairs and is highly appreciated in Italy as prime minister after a time of political instability. A Franco-Italian bond is the beginning of a strong Mediterranean pack in the European arena, where France can provide the necessary unity between South and North Europe.
Emmanuel Macron is already laying the foundation to become the new ‘Merkel’. The French elections of next year will be the first for him to deal with. After that, he can continue with a fresh mandate and pursue the vision for Europe he already made clear during the last presidential elections: a sovereign, united and democratic Europe.