LONDON — Leading the European Union and its predecessor organizations has always been a difficult task. For a long time, France and Germany, the two largest founding members, managed it relatively collaboratively. Leaders — among them Helmut Schmidt and Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, Helmut Kohl and François Mitterrand — would sort out their disagreements first and then Europeanize their compromises.
But for most of the past decade, one leader has presided over Europe alone: Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany. Now, as she prepares to leave office, a competition to succeed her is underway.
Leading the charge is President Emmanuel Macron of France, whose self-proclaimed attempts to give the European Union an explicitly political purpose have been frustrated so far. Then there’s Olaf Scholz, likely to be Germany’s next chancellor, who will hope to inherit Ms. Merkel’s mantle. And perhaps at the back is Prime Minister Mario Draghi of Italy, the former president of the European Central Bank credited with saving the euro.
They can save their breath. Hamstrung by the rivalry between America and China, and deeply divided internally, the European Union inhabits a world different from that of the years of Ms. Merkel’s ascendancy. In fact, her old job hasn’t really existed for a while. There is a vacuum at the heart of the bloc for a simple reason: The European Union cannot now be led. No one is going to become the new Ms. Merkel.
Though she became chancellor in 2005, Ms. Merkel’s leadership was more short-lived than many realize. It wasn’t until the eurozone crisis, which began in 2010 and sent borrowing costs soaring across the bloc, that Ms. Merkel became a European powerhouse.
In the early stages of the crisis she appeared to be just one half of a double act — referred to as “Merkozy” — with Nicolas Sarkozy, then president of France. But Mr. Sarkozy was more ornament than decision maker. Although they both pushed for the removal from office of Italy’s prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, it was Ms. Merkel’s intervention that proved decisive. With Mr. Sarkozy’s departure in 2012, any notion of Franco-German parity vanished.
Ms. Merkel became the central player in all the big questions Europe faced. In the summer of 2012, she blessed Mr. Draghi’s announcement of an asset-purchasing program, easing the eurozone’s borrowing costs. In 2014, she pushed a divided European Union into agreeing on collective sanctions against Russia over the annexation of Crimea. And during the 2015 refugee and migrant crisis, she upended the bloc’s asylum policy with a few words to her fellow German citizens — “We can do it.” (When she retreated from that judgment a few months later, she negotiated an agreement for the whole European Union with Turkey, aided by only the Dutch prime minister, whose country happened to hold the rotating E.U. presidency.)
Mr. Macron, coming to power in 2017, made restoring parity across the Rhine the raison d’être of his presidency. But unable to dilute Ms. Merkel’s influence or persuade her to buy into his grand vision for Europe, he soon switched to disrupting the chancellor — nowhere more so than when, in October 2019, he vetoed the start of E.U. accession negotiations for North Macedonia and Albania. The relationship between the two, never cozy, didn’t really recover.
For her last act of European leadership, Ms. Merkel tried to seal Europe’s orientation toward China. She pushed for the Comprehensive Investment Agreement, which opens China’s market to investment by European corporations, and tried to finalize it last December. Coming just before Joe Biden took office, the agreement was Ms. Merkel’s version of European strategic autonomy: an assertion that on economic and climate matters Europe, unlike America, preferred cooperation with China to confrontation.
But the attempt failed. After China retaliated against the European Union’s sanctions on four Chinese officials because of human rights violations in Xinjiang, the agreement went unratified. In any case, the bloc is far from unified on what economic and technological engagement with China should look like.
For Germany, economically dependent on China and pivotal for its trade routes into Europe, pragmatic cooperation seems a sensible course. But for other member states, China poses more of a threat. Strikingly, under Mr. Draghi, Italy has effectively given up on courting Chinese investment and turned more to America.
Over the past months, Ms. Merkel has been without the power she previously enjoyed. On multiple issues — the rule of law, nuclear power, defense policy and, not least, the relationship with China — Europe is profoundly divided, with little room for maneuver. Yet there’s no reason to think anybody else could fare better.
Mr. Macron’s grand plans for Europe, from deeper monetary union to increased military capacity and technological independence, are not widely supported. His government’s assumption that the European Union is already a superpower peer to both America and China sounds not just delusional but also offensive in those European capitals where America’s guarantee of security is indispensable.
Mr. Scholz, for his part, will be subject to the same economic pressures that underwrote Ms. Merkel’s approach to China. And he surely will struggle, as Ms. Merkel did, to impose his preferred orientation — a deep economic relationship with China and a security relationship with Washington — across Europe. As for Mr. Macron and Mr. Draghi, they may make common cause over several issues but they are poles apart on America and China.
The reality, starkly stated, is that neither the German chancellor nor the French government can lead Europe. The compromises their predecessors made with each other are no longer available. And in the absence of leadership, Europe is headed for one thing — stasis.
Helen Thompson (@HelenHet20) is a professor of political economy at the University of Cambridge and a contributing writer at The New Statesman.
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