Angela Merkel, the invisible European

EXCEPTIONS PROVE who governs. In the summer of 2015, Angela Merkel suspended the EUasylum and allowed 1 million people to enter Germany, in the most controversial decision of his tenure. Rather than being sent back to their first port of entry in southern Europe, Syrians arriving in Germany were given new life in Europe’s most prosperous country. Move on to December 2021 and asylum rules are suspended again. This time the goal is to keep people away. Those who cross Belarus to the EU now face up to four months in a detention center while their application is processed. Others won’t even go that far. Polish border guards push them back to Belarus, sometimes brutally. Willkommenskultur was shown the door.

When it comes to asylum policy in the EU, it’s as if ” Wir schaffen das ” (“We can handle this”) had never been said. The fences stand up. Proposals to distribute the burden of asylum seekers more equitably have been stalled for five years. This is far from being an isolated case: the most significant policies pursued by Merkel at European level are in the process of being undone. The German Chancellor did not leave the European scene until December 8, when Olaf Scholz’s coalition of Social Democrats, Liberals and Greens officially took power. Yet the mark left by the greatest of this century EU politician is already fading away.

Part of it is natural. Even in Germany, a country where consensus is king, a change of government brings about a change of policy. Take a stand on Central Europe. As Chancellor, Merkel pampered Poland and Hungary as they flouted democratic standards. Ms Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (and Christian Social Union, her Bavarian sister) have hampered measures to curb the Hungarian and Polish governments, such as removing EU funds or even just politically isolate them. In Merkel’s mind, the risk of division outweighed fears about democracy.

Under the new coalition, a stricter line will emerge. The coalition agreement contained strict provisions on respect for the rule of law. No German government seems to have any weight in Polish affairs, for obvious enough reasons. Yet he can stop hindering others, as Ms. Merkel did.

It was a similar story when it came to reforming the EU. Each time Emmanuel Macron pressed the accelerator of the Franco-German engine, Merkel pressed the clutch; the car would make a lot of noise, but would go nowhere. In a club of 27, staying still is usually the easiest compromise. This means that no one is overwritten. But it was a particularly attractive option for Germany. After all, from the German point of view, the EU works pretty well. It provides Germany with a currency which keeps exports cheap and a large market to sell them. Why change the status quo if it works?

When Mrs Merkel took her foot off the clutch, things happened. A fund of 750 billion euros (845 billion dollars) to help EU countries recovering from covid-19, paid for with a common debt, was agreed under his leadership. The former chancellor described it as a pragmatic step in the extreme circumstances of the pandemic. Mr Scholz was comfortable labeling it as something more ambitious, calling for the potential EU– level the taxes to pay for it a “Hamiltonian moment” in the vein of the American founding father. Making the fund a permanent element causes nausea both in the CDU/CSU and in parts of the coalition. Until recently, Germany could count on a multitude of allies who agreed. From now on, those who would like a repetition, or even make it permanent, are ascending. If a tool has been used once, it can be reused.

Continental political currents run counter to Merkel’s world view. Nuclear power, which Merkel abandoned in Germany, is experiencing a renaissance. Eastern Europe and France are reconnecting with reliable, low-carbon electricity from nuclear power plants. (Germany is leading a rearguard action to prevent the commission from recognizing that nuclear energy is green.) Merkel once sat at the top of a cabal of center-right leaders who defined the leadership of the club. At the start of the previous decade, the leader of virtually all major EU country from the center-right. Now nobody does it anymore. Kyriakos Mitsotakis, the Greek Prime Minister (11 million inhabitants), is the most prominent center-right leader.

A more flexible line on fiscal rules is emerging through the EU. Under Ms Merkel, the German view of (bad) spending and (good) savings was forced on a continent. As finance minister, the center-left Mr Scholz has tried to exaggerate the similarities between himself and Wolfgang Schäuble, his extremist CDU predecessor. Usually, passports count more than politics when it comes to EU finance ministers. This time around, Christian Lindner, the new Liberal finance minister, has done his best to avoid being called hard-line. Under Chancellor Scholz, fiscal policy appears to have shifted from a policy favorable to Germany to one more lenient toward southern Europe.

Gone, but … also forgotten

Ms Merkel was the strongest leader on the European stage because the others were weak. While Helmut Kohl had François Mitterrand and Charles de Gaulle had Konrad Adenauer, Ms Merkel was generally alone. The times when political weight combined with competence, such as the rise of Mr. Macron in France and the rise of Mario Draghi to the post of Prime Minister in Italy, are brief. Both could disappear next year. If Germany seems to dominate EU political, it is due as much to the disorganization of other governments as to Teutonic strength.

In a way, the erasure of Merkel is cruel. Alongside Mr. Draghi, she has the best claim of all the leaders to have kept the EU Go. A less patient could easily have ended up pushing Greece out of the euro zone; a more dogmatic could have overseen the currency collapse. She helped the club survive tough times, but she didn’t shape it. The memory of Merkel’s career will fade away like footprints in the snow. She kept the club together, but barely left a mark. â– 

This article appeared in the Europe section of the print edition under the title “L’Européen invisible”

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