PARIS – After the Germans vote on Sunday and the formation of a new government, Chancellor Angela Merkel will step down after 16 years as a dominant figure in European politics. This is the moment that Emmanuel Macron, the French president, was waiting for.
The German Chancellor, although credited with handling multiple crises, has long been criticized for her lack of strategic vision. Mr Macron, whose more swaggering style has at times ruffled his European partners – and Washington – has put forward ideas for a more independent and integrated Europe, better able to act in its own defense and its own interests.
But as the Anglo-American “betrayal” underlined in the Australian submarine affair, Mr. Macron sometimes has ambitions beyond his reach. Despite the vacuum left by Merkel, a Macron era is unlikely to emerge.
Instead, analysts say, the European Union is heading into a period of prolonged uncertainty and potential weakness, if not drift. No character – not even Mr. Macron, or a new German Chancellor – will have as much influence as Ms. Merkel was at her strongest, an authoritarian and knowledgeable leader who quietly managed to compromise and built consensus among a long time. list of more ideological colleagues.
It raises the prospect of paralysis or of a Europe becoming entangled in its challenges – over what to do with an increasingly indifferent America, China and Russia, and trade and of technology – or even a more dangerous fracture of the bloc’s ever-shy unit.
And that will mean that Mr Macron, who himself is running for reelection in April and absorbed in this uncertain campaign, will have to wait for a German government that might not be in place until January or later, and then work closely with a weaker German chancellor.
“We will have a weak German chancellor in addition to a larger, less unified coalition,” said Mujtaba Rahman, managing director for Europe of Eurasia Group, a political risk consultancy. “A weaker chancellor is less able to exert influence in Europe, and then with the election of Macron, the political cycles of these two key countries will not be in sync.”
The uncertainty is expected to last until after France’s legislative elections in June – and that assumes Mr Macron wins.
Mr Macron has argued forcefully that Europe must do more to protect its own interests in a world where China is rising and the United States is focused on Asia. Its officials are already trying to prepare the ground on some key issues, ahead of January, when France takes over the rotating presidency of the European Union. But given the likelihood of lengthy coalition talks in Germany, the window for realization is narrow.
Mr. Macron will need German help. While France and Germany can no longer manage the European Union on their own, when they agree they tend to drag the rest of the bloc with them.
Thus, building a relationship with the new German Chancellor, even weaker, will be a primary objective for Mr. Macron. He must be careful, noted Daniela Schwarzer, executive director for Europe and Eurasia of the Open Societies Foundations, not to frighten the Germans.
“Macron’s leadership is disruptive and the German style is to gradually change institutions,” she said. “Both parties will need to think about how they allow the other party to respond constructively. “
French officials understand that fundamental changes will be slow and they will want to build on initiatives already underway, such as the analysis of European interests called “the strategic compass” and a modest but steady increase in military spending on new capabilities across the new defense Europe. Fund and a program called Pesco, intended to promote joint projects and European interoperability.
After the humiliation of the scuttled submarine deal, when Australia suddenly canceled a contract with France and instead chose a deal with Britain and the United States, many of its colleagues Europeans are now more likely to agree with Mr Macron that Europe should be less dependent. on Washington and spend at least a little more on its own defense.
Few in Europe, however, want to permanently damage ties with the Americans and NATO.
“Italy wants a stronger Europe, okay, but in NATO – we are not on the French page on this,” said Marta Dassu, former Italian deputy foreign minister and director of affairs. Europeans at the Aspen Institute.
Mario Draghi, the Italian Prime Minister, whose voice is respected in Brussels, firmly believes in transatlantic relations, she declared, adding: “We are closer to Germany than to France, but without all the ambiguities on Russia and China. ”
France also wants to assert itself more by using the economic and financial tools that Europe already has, including trade and technology, according to officials. The goal, they say, is not to push too hard too fast, but to elevate the European game vis-à-vis China and the United States, and try to encourage a culture to l comfortable with power.
But France’s German partners will themselves go through a period of uncertainty and transition. A new German chancellor is expected to win only a quarter of the vote and may have to negotiate a coalition deal between three different political parties. It should take at least until Christmas, if not longer.
The new chancellor will also need to catch up on European issues, which barely surfaced during the campaign, and build his credibility as a newcomer among 26 other leaders.
“So it’s important now to start thinking about concrete Franco-German victories during a French presidency that Macron can use in a positive way in his campaign,” said Ms Schwarzer. “Because Berlin does not want to think about a scenario in which Macron loses” to the extreme right Marine Le Pen or in which eurosceptics like Matteo Salvini take over in Italy.
Whoever wins, German policy towards Europe will remain much the same of a country deeply committed to the ideals of the EU, cautious and concerned with preserving stability and unity. The real question is whether a European leader can be the cohesive force that Merkel was – and if not, what that will mean for the future of the continent.
“Merkel herself has played an important role in keeping the EU together,” said Ulrich Speck of the German Marshall Fund. “She kept in mind the interests of so many people in Europe, especially in Central Europe but also in Italy, so that everyone could stay on board.”
Merkel saw the European Union as the heart of her policy, said a senior European official, who called her a guardian of the EU’s true values, ready to bend to keep the bloc united, as evidenced by her support for collective debt, previously a German Red Line, to finance the coronavirus recovery fund.
“Merkel acted as a mediator as many centrifugal forces weakened Europe,” said Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff, Berlin office manager of the German Marshall Fund. “It is less clear how the next chancellor will position himself and Germany. “
Yet Mark Leonard, director of the European Council on Foreign Relations, noted that “whoever the chancellor is, Germany is still responsible for more than half of Chinese trade with Europe.” Germany is “much more important than other countries on all the big issues, from the management of China to technology wars and climate change,” he said.
This means that Mr Macron “knows he has to channel German power behind his vision,” he said.
But French and Italian positions will also be crucial on important outstanding financial issues, like fiscal and banking integration, trying to complete the single market and monitoring the recovery fund in the event of a pandemic.
Ms Merkel’s departure may offer an opportunity for the kind of change Mr Macron wants, even if it is a vastly scaled-down version. Merkel’s love for the status quo, some analysts said, was anachronistic at a time when Europe faces so many challenges.
Perhaps most important is the looming debate over whether to change Europe’s spending rules, which in practical terms means getting countries to agree to spend more on everything from defense to climate. .
The real problem is that a fundamental change would require a treaty change, said Guntram Wolff, director of Bruegel, a Brussels research institution. “You can’t have fiscal and defense integration stealthily,” he said. “It will not have legitimacy and will not be accepted by citizens.
But German election debates ignored these general questions, he said.
“The sad news,” Mr Wolff said, “is that none of the three candidates for chancellor has campaigned on any of this, so my basic expectation is to continue to get confused.”