What Angela Merkel wants – POLITICO

But the coronavirus pandemic, in particular the massive economic consequences it has caused, is forcing Berlin to acknowledge what some European thinkers have been saying for years: the EU will not survive without stronger German leadership.

“Europe needs us, just as we need Europe,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said in a sparse meeting of parliamentarians last week in a speech aimed at setting out her vision for the upcoming EU presidency in the country, which begins the next week.

“Agenda item 10”, Merkel’s speech announced by Parliament Speaker Wolfgang Schäuble, began with a familiar recitation of the buttery phrases about war and peace and the manifest destiny of the EU that are a pillar of German political rhetoric.

It soon became clear that Merkel had a more pressing message: As Europe struggles with the aftermath of the coronavirus, which she described as the “greatest challenge” in EU history, the time had come for Germany to enter the gap. More significantly, Merkel made it clear that helping Europe was central to Germany’s national interest.

“How Europe fares in this crisis compared to other regions of the world will determine both the future of European prosperity and Europe’s role in the world,” he said.

In other words, Germany, the country that has benefited the most from the European Union’s common market, open borders and the single currency, needs to do more than just write generous checks and give advice on austerity.

“If Germany does not show leadership in Europe, there will be no Europe,” said James D. Bindenagel, a professor at the Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-University in Bonn and a former US ambassador who is writing a book about Germany. role in the world.

While the notion that Berlin needs to lead may seem unremarkable, even obvious to foreign ears, in the world of German foreign policy, it represents a significant change.

After the Cold War, a reunited Germany, now comfortably located in central Europe, sought to maintain a semblance of balance in its relations with the United States, its protector, the rest of Europe and Russia, emphasizing free trade and multilateralism. She went on to define her foreign policy in terms of her “historical responsibility,” a nod to the legacy of World War II, not the national interest.

Even before the pandemic, that strategy seemed increasingly unsustainable. Faced with a dysfunctional EU, a belligerent US administration, an aggressive Russia, and the rise of China, Germany struggled to articulate a new strategic doctrine.

The coronavirus has transformed those crosswinds into a complete storm, forcing a reevaluation of German and European strategy on issues as varied as climate change and China.

“For the first time, the Germans have recognized that we are in a totally different world and are trying to find their place,” said Ivan Krastev, a leading thinker on European affairs and president of the Center for Liberal Strategies in Sofia. “It’s Merkel checking on Merkel.”

Until the pandemic, Merkel’s biggest concern was finding a successor. With her term of office running in just over a year and with no plans to run again, the German leader was destined to ride into the sunset after 15 years in office. Although the chancellor was still widely respected, even her enthusiastic supporters acknowledged that she had run out of steam and ambition.

The coronavirus outbreak rejuvenated her. For a politician with a scientific background who views politics as an intellectual exercise in solving complex problems, the pandemic presents the final challenge. He also understood that the pandemic posed a more urgent existential threat to the EU than other recent crises, people close to her say.

Germany’s early success in fighting the virus, especially compared to the United States or the United Kingdom, has given Merkel the political capital and confidence to be more proactive on the European stage.

Still, his previous forays into European politics show how difficult it is to intervene successfully. Merkel’s course in the twin crises that defined Europe’s last decade, the eurozone debt crisis and the 2015 refugee crisis, did more to divide the continent than to unite it. In Germany, it generated the far-right party Alternative for Germany, now a staple in the country’s political landscape.

What makes the current crisis different is that it affects all countries in Europe. You cannot opt ​​for the coronavirus. Even if some Europeans were disappointed by the EU’s initial response, they also learned that doing it alone, whether in Sweden or Italy, is also not an attractive option.

Countries that in the past could have sought help in the US or even China have faced a rude awakening. While the United States’ response to the crisis has damaged its credibility in Europe, China’s efforts to hide its own role in the spread of the disease have also deepened distrust of Beijing.

For most European countries, overcoming the consequences of the pandemic, especially the economic impact, means trusting Europe, if not out of a common sense of purpose, out of basic need.

The question is how far the rest of Europe is ready to endure the German dominance that the EU was designed to moderate.

Germany is the EU’s largest country by size and population, not to mention its economic power. Merkel is without a doubt the most influential leader in the region. The Germans now occupy key positions in Brussels, especially the presidency of the Commission.

Is Europe ready for Berlin to take even more control? The short answer is that you have no other choice.

The wisdom received from the EU holds that only the “Franco-German engine” can propel the bloc forward. In the past, people behind the wheel used to speak French.

In the early years, West Germany, grateful to have been invited to the party, was content to let Paris take center stage. Over time, the Germans gradually began to assert more influence.

But Germany did not promote the transformation of Europe. In fact, Europe’s biggest move towards integration, the euro, was the result of a German concession: in exchange for France’s acceptance of German reunification, then-Chancellor Helmut Kohl agreed to relinquish the German brand.

Compared to the early days of the European project, France is now a diminished power, both politically and economically. Unlike Germany, where the majority of the population still supports the main pro-EU parties, the Eurosceptic far right is an ever-present threat. To the extent that Germany still needs France, it is to keep up appearances.

“Germany treats France in the same way that the United States treated the Soviet Union after the fall of the Wall,” said an adviser to the German government.

In recent years, even when German leaders never failed to mention the importance of the European ideal in public, in practice, they treated the EU more as the problem than the solution.

When Germany took the initiative in the past, it did so both for its own interest and for the good of Europe. Take the eastern enlargement of the EU, a German priority that placed the country at the geographic center of the bloc and gave the country’s industry unlimited access to cheap manufacturing and cheap labor.

Those countries, including Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary, are now fiercely independent, at least politically. In terms of their economies, they all depend heavily on Germany. Only Poland, by far the largest economy in the region, ships almost 30 percent of its exports to Germany, its largest trading partner.

It is easy to see why Berlin has been content to treat Europe as an afterthought. Following the 2008-09 financial crisis, Germany effectively decoupled from much of the rest of the region. Its export-led economy rebounded rapidly, fueled by demand for its cars and machinery from China, and then to the US As southern Europe grappled with its debt crisis, Germany’s economy advanced , generating several years of fiscal surplus.

In Berlin’s view, the remedy for Europe’s ills, especially economic ones, was for the rest of the bloc to become more German. Europe’s laggards, to quote Merkel, needed to “do their homework,” controlling public spending and making their economies more competitive.

Looking back, people close to Merkel acknowledge that Germany’s approach was wrong. While the United States, which has implemented ambitious stimulus measures since the start of the financial crisis, recorded a solid recovery, some countries in Europe, weighed down by austerity measures, suffered a lost decade.

Taking much more aggressive measures by Germany to combat the current crisis, both nationally and at the EU level, amounts to a tacit acknowledgment that past policies have failed.

Merkel’s endorsement last month of a € 500 billion debt-financed fund for countries struggling to cope with the pandemic marked the turning point in Germany’s approach. Before the pandemic, such a step would have been unthinkable.

The move was made possible in part due to a generational shift among Germany’s top economists; The old-line conservatives who dominated the previous debates have withdrawn and have been replaced by more liberal and internationalist voices. Even more important, a change of leadership in Merkel’s Bavarian brother party, the Christian Social Union, has made him more willing to engage in financial matters.

People close to Merkel say that while she wanted to send a clear signal with the fund, it does not represent the fundamental shift in parsimony and national responsibility that many foreign observers saw. “The intention is to prevent Europe from collapsing,” said one.

That may be naive. While the fund alone will not save Europe, it is hard to deny that Germany, which rejected similar steps for decades, has crossed a Rubicon.

However, it would also be an exaggeration to expect Germany’s embrace of a stronger leadership role to result in the kind of EU federalized superstate championed by French President Emmanuel Macron.

“This is not a federalist moment,” said Krastev. “No one is dreaming of a United States of Europe, but there is much more willingness for cooperation, especially in the economic sphere.”

In Merkel’s world, leadership means looking for what is realistic, a list that for the presidency includes improving Schengen, reviewing EU competition rules, exploring taxes to finance the EU, and the possibility of a the EU to assess external threats.

If you can show Europe that Germany can lead without dominating, you will also have secured something that has eluded you for the past 15 years: a legacy.