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Merkel at Harvard
I have long been a fan of Angela Merkel. I am even more so after the Commencement Address the German Chancellor recently gave on the Harvard Yard. I was fortunate to be among the thousands of people who turned out to listen.
There were several memorable moments during her speech. Merkel recalled her personal story as a young physicist in East Germany, walking in the direction of the wall every day on her way to work but sensing that it could prove a barrier that might never be bridged, at least not in her lifetime. But in 1989 it fell, underscoring the idea that nothing is permanent and that everything is subject to change. This was one of the many messages that the Chancellor wanted to transmit to the graduates.
After the fall of the wall, Merkel moved to Berlin, the capital of the new Germany. She went on to become the leader of the Christian Democratic Union in 2000 and then the country’s first female Chancellor in 2005. She relinquished the CDU Presidency in 2018 and has said that she will step down as Chancellor in 2021.
Merkel has been one of Germany’s most competent chief executives. In her remarks, she spoke about the need in political work to ask oneself whether one is about to do something because it is possible or because it is right. More often than not, she did what was right.
Merkel received standings ovations for this and other statements on a range of subjects: why serious action on climate change is an imperative, why she decided to open her country’s borders to over a million refugees in 2015, why countries should be outward looking rather than closed, why we forget the historical accomplishments of the Atlantic security community at our peril, and why we need, in no uncertain terms, to make a distinction between truth and lies. She did not mention the American President by name, but it was clear that Trump was the target.
A Leader of the EU or the Leader of Europe?
At the Harvard event, the German Chancellor was introduced as the leader of the European Union. If ever there was a German who might qualify as such, it is Merkel.
The Chancellor has said that she is not seeking the EU leadership. But even if she were to seek it, there would a number of obstacles in her way.
Here are some of the key ones.
While Germany has made great progress in overcoming the resentments provoked by World II, EU public opinion is still reserved vis-à- vis Germany. According to a recent EU poll while over 60% of EU citizens felt comfortable with Germany, roughly a majority of non-German Europeans believed that Germany had too much power in the EU.
This sentiment is especially strong among southern EU members. It has been fuelled by what they see as unnecessary German rigidity in dealing with the financial crises many southern members experienced after the 2007-2008 economic crisis. They have tended to see Germany as gaming the EU system at their expense.
At the same time, Germany’s experience during WWII continues to act as a drag on the country’s ability to lead on the European level. Germany is at best a shy hegemon, a reluctant power when it comes to deployments in crisis zones outside the EU. It would be an understatement to say that Germany is not comfortable with heading up the EU on the security front. But how to cope with a decreasingly secure world is a key challenge for the EU community. Beyond that, Germany has largely failed to modernise its defence capacity in response to the return of inter-state conflict to the Euro-Atlantic zone.
And while Germany has the EU’s largest population, its leaders are nowhere near commanding a level of support that would give them legitimacy in the EU as a whole. So, for example, Merkel’s best score in the four elections she has fought since 2005 was 41.5%, which translates into twenty million voters or roughly one twentieth of the EU electorate of some 400 million.
For these and other reasons, Merkel cannot be considered as the leader of the EU. She is only one of its leaders, albeit one of its best.
Leading the EU
Germany cannot lead but nor can the alternative national state-based configurations that are typically put forward: the French-German duo that Paris and Berlin have traditionally privileged, troika arrangements with the duo plus the UK or in the age of Brexit with Italy, or more recently a quadrilateral relationship involving Italy and Spain.
Nor can the EU’s many Presidencies. The EU has four, maybe five Presidents: one for the European Council, which brings together representatives of the 28 member states, one for the European Parliament, one for the European Commission – the EU civil service – one for the European Central Bank, and last but not least, the High Representative for Foreign Affairs, who enjoys quasi-presidential powers.
All of these incumbents work more or less exclusively in their own spaces. None of them is in a position to shape the whole and to develop common responses to the many critical challenges that the EU faces at home and abroad: security, immigration, climate change, the economy and the like.
The EU’s main partners and opponents – Russia, China, the USA – are all presided over by individuals with an overarching mandate, allowing them to move decisively in one or the other direction (even if often in the wrong one). The EU has no equivalent, and as long it has no equivalent, it will remain a second-rate player, incapable of effectively defending the interests of its more than four hundred million electors.
For the EU to change its leadership paradigm is going to be difficult.
The current system favours politicians who are non-entities or lack clout. So, the European Parliament chooses the Council President among the candidates put forward by the Parliament’s political groups. This can lead to a situation in which small-minded political party politics determines who will be a candidate. So, for example, the current candidate of the centre-right is a Bavarian politician who has never exercised executive responsibility. The current incumbent is a former Prime Minister of Luxembourg, the EU’s tiniest state, but the one that has served up the most Council Presidents.
This happens because the national leaders of the twenty-eight EU member states do not want some guy or gal in Brussels overshadowing their national role. They want to be able to continue to profile themselves as the national leader par excellence.
As part of this process, national EU leaders tend to criticize the EU for policies that they themselves have allowed to be implemented on the European level. The most egregious example of such behaviour was provided by former UK PM David Cameroon, who went out of his way to criticize the EU. His attitude was in part responsible for the anti-EU and pro-Brexit vote of 2016.
And, then there are the nationalists/populists/fascists that delight in taking aim at the EU. They will never score anywhere close to 50% of the electorate, but they think they might be able to seize power nationally with a third of the vote, if their democratic adversaries are divided. (This is what happened in Germany in 1933). Even well short of such a result on the all-European level, they can cause havoc that hamstrings the EP. Their rise is referred to by mainstream national politicians as a reason to cool it on the EU front out of just such a fear.
This points to a fundamental misunderstanding of what the European Union is all about. The EU and its various antecedents were borne out of a realization that Europe could only live in peace and prosperity if it devised an effective continent-wide system of governance.
Despite the difficulties facing the EU, the recent elections for the European Parliament suggest that the time may now have come for a decisive push forward on the institutional front. Turnout increased significantly, topping 50% for the first time in twenty years. The centre-right and the centre-left, the two forces that have traditionally led the EU, lost ground and no longer control a majority of EP seats. But with the gains made by the greens and the liberals, the democrats still control a broad majority. The populists and euro-sceptics fared well in the UK, Italy, Poland, Sweden and Hungary but still totalled less than twenty-five percent of the tally of the democrats. If the latter can work together, there is an opportunity here.
The EU has made great strides since its lowly institutional beginnings in the 1950s. If it to survive as a political, economic, social and civilizational entity in the 21st century, it will have to make several more.