THERE was one question always begging to be asked of the European Union: “What do you want to be when you grow up?”
At an early stage it wasn’t clear to everyone. Then the purpose and direction of travel seemed agreed — under the stewardship of Angela Merkel.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel has announced she won’t seek re-election in 2021[/caption]
She was there to settle disputes, authorise bailouts, offer German help to struggling nations and protect the project as it led to ever-closer union. With Merkel at the helm at least the EU appeared to have direction.
Not any more.
This week the German Chancellor announced she would not seek re-election as head of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party she has led for 18 years and step down at the next election, in 2021.
In her demise we can see, in parallel, the demise of her vision of Europe. A clear, federalist vision which once seemed inevitable and now sorely lacks a leader.
Merkel in 2000, after becoming leader of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party[/caption]
Today there is no one capable of acting as queen or emperor of that project, as Merkel has done for the past decade. That is due, in no small part, to the decisions she took.
The Merkel project created a EU with unachievable ambitions, seeking to impose uniformity upon the most diverse set of countries on Earth.
Her vision of Europe once seemed unassailable. Yet the first scent trails of her political mortality came in 2016, when in regional elections the three-year-old Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) beat her own party into a humiliating third place.
Then came last year’s German elections, in which the CDU suffered its worst results since 1949. Merkel spent six humiliating months trying to form a coalition — fighting off repeated challenges from critics among her own colleagues.
Last year’s German elections saw the CDU suffer its worst results since 1949[/caption]
It is easy to see why they have tried to move against her. Merkel’s big selling point — her rock-like immovability — had become an obstacle, seen as intransigence in a Europe that needed to change.
The Europe Merkel led pushed the creation of a currency before it had created a country. When the global financial crisis hit the unsound euro, Merkel had two options.
She might have explained to her electorate that Germany had benefited from the euro and now was the time to move money from the richer nations to the poorer ones.
Or she might have accepted that the eurozone covered economies were simply too different and that an orderly separation of the union might be in order.
The immovable “Mutti” (as the Germans used to call her) took neither course. Instead, she oversaw a system that imposed sado-austerity on southern Europe, left the eurozone ill-prepared for the next crisis and set the stage for events that would lead to her downfall.
But the mistake which was to prove the turning point for her chancellorship, and the European project, was the migration crisis.
At its peak, in 2015, Merkel seemed to think she had the right to continue making decisions on behalf of an entire continent.
Merkel was elected Chancellor in 2005[/caption]
When she unilaterally announced the suspension of normal border and asylum procedures in August that year, inviting refugees to Germany”, she listened to the warnings of none.
Only as Germany became overwhelmed did the Chancellor’s presumption become clear — as did the consequences.
Just as Europe had in her view shared the burden in the financial crisis, so should fellow member states split the bill that Merkel had run up alone in Berlin, in her one moment of moral intoxication.
But the rest of Europe turned away. Overnight, Merkel turned from a force of stability into a wild gambler with her country’s future. And in election after election, the rest of Europe began to pull away.
The EU has become a source of instability in the continent by its Merkel-like refusal, or inability, to reform[/caption]
The Hungarians were at first the most vocal. But Berlin, like Brussels, could cope with the souring of relations with the Visegrad countries, condescending to them as trainee Europeans who had not quite grasped how things are done.
This narrative was harder to sustain once Britain voted to leave the EU. And it became impossible once Italy started heading in another direction. Now in Greece and Poland things are turning ugly.
Wherever you look the conclusion is the same: This is not a Europe of ever-closer union. Instead, the EU has become a source of instability in the continent by its Merkel-like refusal, or inability, to reform.
As she begins to exit, she leaves a country where the AfD is the main party of opposition, where protests in Chemnitz and elsewhere have seen outbreaks of Nazi saluting and where everybody seems to be talking about the war.
With Merkel going, French President Emmanuel Macron has lost his only real ally[/caption]
Her throne will likely sit empty, because there is only one politician in Europe who seems to have any desire to take it.
French President Emmanuel Macron has been preparing for this moment of continental leadership for years. His idea is to further centralise the eurozone, with an EU finance minister and a joint eurozone budget. For this, he needed a German buy-in.
Merkel was all set to back his eurozone plan in return for his supporting an EU-wide plan to manage migration. With Merkel going, Macron has lost his only real ally.
Few in Europe have taken the lesson from the Merkel era that “more” EU and fewer nation states are the way to go. Rather, the pendulum has swung the other way. And it looks like the role of leader of Europe will stay vacant.
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There will be a future for the EU — just not the one that seemed inevitable at the height of Merkel’s power.
For whatever the view from Brussels and Berlin, during the Merkel years, the rest of the continent suffered the growing pains and decided one country at a time it wasn’t what they wanted to be.
The end of an era, certainly. But not the end of the world.
- This article first appeared in The Spectator.