Berlin (AFP) – Angela Merkel’s departure from the political scene after 16 years as Chancellor not only ushered in a new era in Germany, but also upset the balance of power in the EU.
Potential candidates to take over from Merkel at the helm of Europe include her successor at the helm of Europe’s largest economy, Olaf Scholz, as well as French President Emmanuel Macron and Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi.
But analysts warn that none may be immediately able to take on the task, given the unresolved challenges of the European Union – ranging from an internal dispute over the rule of law to marginalization in the community. global geopolitics, including the aftershocks of Brexit.
Praised for her steadfast hand in leading the bloc crisis after crisis, Merkel left the scene while she was still immensely popular at home and abroad, although there have been strong opponents among her European colleagues .
“Angela Merkel is seen as one of the most important politicians of a generation, as the de facto leader of the European Union and the ‘leader of a free world’,” wrote Sebastian Reiche of IESE Business School in Spain.
In a recent poll by the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) think tank, 41% of EU citizens said if they could, they would vote for Merkel. Comparatively, only 14% chose Macron.
Yet critics say Merkel’s tactics of avoiding crises and putting economic interests first, even in relations with Russia or China, have fueled inertia and stifled further European integration.
Its exit could well open the door for the other half of the European engine – Macron – to slip into the driver’s seat.
The stars seem to align: France has held the presidency of the EU since January and Macron has declared that he wants to forge a Europe “powerful in the world, fully sovereign, free of its choices and responsible for its own destiny”.
And with the new Social Democrat-led coalition in Germany seemingly determined to spend to get out of the pandemic, secular German fiscal tightness appears to be faltering.
Likewise in matters of defense, Germany, once comfortably installed under the “American shield”, is no longer so sure since the presidency of Donald Trump forced the political classes of Berlin to bury their old certainties and to initiate a change of mentality.
Illustrating the change, Scholz’s government made up of its Social Democrats, Green environmentalists and liberal FDP declared in their coalition pact that it was their “task as an economically strong and populous country at the heart of Europe. enable, promote and advance this sovereign Europe “.
Merkel’s departure “may allow France’s vision of a powerful Europe to develop, it is an ambition that Macron has defended since coming to power,” said Alexandre Robinet-Borgomano of the Institut Montaigne.
“Merkelism” is out
As the guard changed in Berlin, Macron recently signed a new bilateral cooperation treaty with Draghi and this month launched a joint call to reform the EU’s fiscal rules to allow for increased investment spending.
The ambitious 43-year-old president has said he is not looking to replace the Franco-German tie, but the move comes as the EU realigns itself after Brexit.
Macron faces an election in 2022, however, with the far right posing a challenge.
Whatever the outcome, France could be tied for some time to domestic politics, limiting its ability to develop a grand vision for Europe.
Scholz, 63, a former finance minister who served in two of Merkel’s cabinets, could seize the opportunity as Merkel’s heir, especially as he assumes the G7 presidency in 2022.
But analysts warn that times have changed and that greater “Merkelism” may not be enough for the new era.
“The policy of remaining neutral and avoiding difficult solutions to Europe’s difficulties does not appear to be a viable approach for the challenges ahead,” wrote Piotr Buras and Jana Puglierin of ECFR.
“Merkelism is unlikely to survive Merkel … because the EU will need a more visionary and courageous Germany to strengthen its foundations and defend its place in the world.”
The jury is out on whether Scholz, who presented himself as a Merkel impersonator – right down to his diamond-shaped hand gesture – during the campaign, will come out of his shadow to take a more daring path.
With the two main European players probably needing time for the realities to dissipate, a new pole of stability has emerged in the once-indebted south.
Nicknamed “Super Mario” during his time as head of the European Central Bank, Draghi brought stability to a country that was once synonymous with political upheaval and scandals.
Draghi “could fill the void left by Angela Merkel as a consensus builder in the European Council,” Nicoletta Pirozzi of the Istituto Affari Internazionali think tank in Rome told AFP.
“In addition, compared to Merkel’s cautious approach, it could breathe new life into key areas of European integration, from the reform of economic governance to foreign and defense policy, in cooperation with France and the new German government. “
But Pirozzi noted that much will depend on the ability of the Italian leader, 74, to successfully implement the EU’s economic stimulus package.
The Italian presidential election in January “could radically change the situation”, as Draghi is also presented as “one of the most credible potential candidates” in this race.
Until a new leader emerges, some analysts see a bleak future for the bloc.
“Europe could be heading into a period of uncertainty and potential weakness,” Reiche warned.
Likewise, Thompson was pessimistic.
“Paralyzed by the rivalry between America and China, and deeply divided within, the European Union inhabits a different world from that of the years of Merkel’s ancestry,” she writes.
“The reality, clearly stated, is that neither the (new) German Chancellor nor the French government can lead Europe.
“And in the absence of leadership, Europe is heading for one thing – stasis.”
© 2021 AFP