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20 February 2020

Financial Times: Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron: Europe’s missed chance

German and French leaders’ hesitation could be fatal, warns Philip Stephens.

[...]This month’s Munich Security Conference, the annual gathering of international security elites, focused on the pervasive sense of drift and fragmentation in western democracies. “Westlessness”, the organisers called it. Think of the accretion of bad news represented by US president Donald Trump’s belligerent unilateralism, European powerlessness in the face of chaos in the Middle East, Brexit and rising political extremism in Europe’s democracies. [...]

If Europe’s differences with the White House are routinely played out in public, the relationship that has really soured is that between Paris and Berlin. Age and temperament have always militated against the idea of Ms Merkel and France’s Emmanuel Macron as soulmates. They could have been partners.

Instead, the relationship has broken down. Mr Macron, taking to the stage in Munich, showed impatience and frustration with the inertia that nowadays passes as Germany’s foreign policy. Ms Merkel was at once physically absent and omnipresent — her precarious hold on power the subject of excited gossip in every conference corner. Politically beleaguered, she exudes contempt for Mr Macron’s supposed grandstanding.

Think back to the spring of 2018. The two leaders had political space and capital. Mr Macron was still in the first flush of his 2017 presidential victory. After a difficult period, Ms Merkel had assembled a coalition to underwrite her fourth term. She had long complained of the absence of a “serious” partner. Now she had one. Both had seen enough of Mr Trump to know that Europe had to take charge of its own affairs. The EU needed to start building an economic union to underwrite the euro and to develop its own foreign and security policies as the US stepped back — all the while managing the combustible Mr Trump.

Nothing happened. Mr Macron launched his initiatives. Ms Merkel buried them in the sand, occasionally conceding a tiny step forward when the pressure became embarrassing. Mr Macron was dressing up French projects in European clothes, her officials would snipe. There was too much hot air, and not enough gritty policy detail. Paris was careless of smaller EU states. German voters did not want grand schemes.

There may well have been some truth in such criticisms. French presidents have a habit of breaking crockery. Ms Merkel’s responses, though, offered nothing in the way of engagement. Instead of presenting its own plans, Berlin shuffled and stalled. Those listening carefully to Mr Steinmeier’s Munich speech would perhaps have detected a hint of sympathy for Mr Macron.

Maybe the chancellor did want to preserve EU unity. More cynically, she was anxious to avoid anything that might destabilise her domestic position. The irony is that she now looks weaker than ever, with no guarantee she will survive in office beyond this year. [...]

Full article on Financial Times (subscription required)

© Financial Times

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