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The rising challenge for Angela Merkel

LiveMint logoLiveMint 03-10-2017 Petra Sorge

When last week, two days after the German elections and in a bold move to challenge German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s leadership role in Europe, French President Emmanuel Macron laid out his visions for a deeper eurozone and European Union integration, the reaction from Germany was brisk. “You don’t strengthen Europe with new pots of money,” tweeted Alexander Lambsdorff of the liberal Free Democrats, who will most likely govern with Merkel.

From Merkel herself, you haven’t heard a lot. She is trapped: On the one hand, praising Macron’s plans, she has reaffirmed that Europe cannot remain in a status quo; on the other hand, she is holed up in Berlin after the worst election result her conservative party has seen since 1949, and two of her four prospective coalition partners oppose a fiscal union—the Free Democrats and the Christian Social Union in Bavaria.

Those in favour of Macron’s plans are the Green Party, which will be the smallest partner in her future coalition, and her previous junior partner, the Social Democrats, which has already announced that it will lead the opposition.

Moreover, the anti-European, anti-Muslim “Alternative For Germany” has entered the Parliament with a whopping 12.7% of the vote as the first right-wing force since the end of World War II, nearly tripling its result since the last elections. It will mobilize all forces against Macron.

In the 12 years of her chancellorship, Merkel has never been so weak.

But even as Macron is about to fill the new power vacuum in Europe, he will need his neighbours. For decades, the Franco-German couple has been the motor of European integration. With the UK opting for Brexit, with Spain on the brink of rupture in the face of Catalan secessionism, and with Greece crippled by the crisis, it has been left to these two countries to lead the way.

Now that Germany is ridden by a new nationalism, how realistic are Macron’s plans? Is the euro integration dead in the water?

The French president can’t risk that as his own political survival depends on this. He has campaigned with a strong pro-European agenda, successfully countering his far right opponent Marine Le Pen from the National Front. He has cleverly borrowed the “sovereignty” rhetoric from nationalists, coining it on Europe. At his victory rally, Macron played Europe’s anthem Ode To Joy instead of the nation’s musical emblem La Marseillaise.

Europe is torn between two visions of the future.

One of nationalism, of a “Europe of fatherlands” as its supporters euphemistically phrase it, and one of an ever deeper integration, of a “United States of Europe” with an all-powerful president, an idea that the head of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, himself champions. The rift is not only over economic questions but also over cultural ones.

By and large, the eurozone and EU integration have brought prosperity to the whole continent— a fact that Britain, as it is negotiating its pull-out from the Union, has just started realizing. They have helped Germany in rising to one of the world’s strongest economies, with an ever-expanding export industry and a buzzing labour market which belie the truth that the emergence of right-wing populism can be explained with fears of globalization and poverty alone.

In contrast, it is the fear of having to share some of this wealth that was at the origin of the Alternative For Germany—and later, the influx of more than a million, mainly Muslim refugees. This fear will have repercussions in the fourth Merkel government that is yet to be formed.

Even as Macron is increasing his efforts to convince his partners—having appointed more German-speaking ministers and advisers in his government than ever before—he can’t risk losing time. And he isn’t: together with Juncker, he pursues the project of holding democratic debates about the EU in every member-country. And the young fervent pro-Europeans from his centrist party La République En Marche! are already busy building a progressive coalition across Europe.

For Germany, the situation is paradoxical.

If Merkel—whether by choice or by force—stays out of this reform process, Macron would have to opt for a “two-speed Europe,” moving ahead with a smaller group of supporters. He will turn towards the southern European countries first. Italy, with debt of more than 130% of its gross domestic product, has already signalled its support for a eurozone reform; next would be Spain and Portugal. In this scenario, Germany will not only lose the bargaining power in the bodies that are yet to be formed but also its leadership role in Europe.

In contrast, if it joined the talks, it would have economic advantages and could influence the character of the new eurozone.

Merkel, an experienced strategist in world politics and herself a European, knows this. If she wants to join the integration talks, she has only one option. She will have to gain time, build a stable government and then hope for the support of the small Green Party, which supports the fiscal union.

However, the implications of this path are clear: She would inevitably feed the right-wing populists, and further undermine her power.

Petra Sorge is a Berlin-based journalist writing on national and international politics.

Comments are welcome at theirview@livemint.com

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