Angela Merkel has been Europe’s most important leader since the end of the Cold War.
In the course of her 16-year tenure as German chancellor, she steered the continent through the 2009-2012 eurozone crisis, Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and invasion of Ukraine, the 2015 refugee crisis, Brexit, and the Covid-19 pandemic. Often, she did this against the political currents and at considerable political cost. Without her political skills, adaptability, and courage, the European Union would be poorer, more divided, and less powerful than it is today. It might not even exist as a bloc.
Merkel’s departure from the stage raises the question of who in Europe can succeed her. Who are the contenders for the title?
As Europe’s largest economy and most populous country, Germany has a claim to de facto leadership of the bloc regardless of who its chancellor is. And Germany’s gravitational pull will continue to exert a strong centripetal force on Europe.
But however similar the next chancellor is to Merkel, no successor will live up to her on the European stage. As I wrote in advance of the German elections, this is “[n]ot because of policy differences, but because there is no one in Germany […] that can match the level of respect, authority, and trust Mutti commands over allies and adversaries alike.”
Moreover, while Olaf Scholz and Armin Laschet both have strong pro-EU credentials, the next chancellor will lead a fragile three-party coalition with the direct backing of only around 20% of the German population. Not only will they lack a mandate to lead on behalf of all Germans—let alone Europeans—but also they will be more preoccupied with domestic governance and coalition management than Merkel ever was. The fact that many Germans seem to be losing confidence in the EU will further constrain their ambition in Brussels.
France is the second largest EU economy and the only member state with nuclear weapons, in addition to being a historical motor of European integration. In the aftermath of Merkel’s exit, it’s only natural that President Emmanuel Macron would want to be the leader of Europe.
However, two obstacles stand in his way. First, he cuts a much more divisive figure than Merkel, both within his country and in Europe, and his temperament is unlikely to inspire enough trust to shepherd European leaders toward hard-to-reach agreements. Second, while ambitious, his interests and agenda for EU reform are out of step with those of most other Europeans. Nowhere is this gap greater than on security, where Macron is intent on developing a sovereign European defense policy but most of Europe (with the exception of Greece) is uninterested at best. This became clear during the recent fracas over the Australia-UK-US defense pact (AUKUS), when other European leaders proved reluctant to back Macron strongly.
As my Eurasia Group colleague Mujtaba Rahman wrote, for both dispositional and substantive reasons, Macron “would struggle—or be less inclined—to fashion the delicate compromises upon which the EU is built.” And in the near term, he’ll be too distracted with his own re-election campaign, anyway.
Can the man who saved the euro lead Europe? Back in 2012, then-president of the European Central Bank, Mario Draghi, rescued the currency union from the verge of collapse and prevented a likely EU breakdown. Today, “Super Mario” leads a national unity government as Prime Minister of Italy.
The closest leader to Merkel in all of Europe in terms of standing and skill, Draghi is a remarkably competent technocrat who has the support of almost all parties at home but is beholden to none. On the international stage he has credibility in spades, owing to his tenure at the ECB and many years of working in Brussels and Washington. And he is a staunch transatlanticist who will be better placed to mend the relationship with the US than his counterparts in Paris and Berlin.
Alas, it’s Italy we’re talking about, so the odds are that his coalition won’t last. With Draghi gone, the country will return to weak governments led by weak premiers, and its ability to punch above its economic weight will vanish.
With Merkel gone, Macron too polarizing, and Draghi not a realistic long-term option, no individual national government will be able to match the qualities that made Merkel’s Germany so fit for European leadership. Thankfully, the EU has supranational institutions with increasingly centralized powers that can step in.
True, Brussels technocrats don’t have the same level of regular diplomatic contact as national governments do, so some reorientation will be required. It is also true that structures like the European Commission suffer from a (perceived) democratic deficit that diminishes their legitimacy. But there’s also upsides. Unelected regulators are less susceptible to public opinion and more insulated from short-term electoral pressures than their national counterparts, and they can often legislate in the common interest without unanimous consent from all 27 member-states. This means that they can overcome vested interests and veto players in a way that even willing national governments may not.
In areas where the European institutions are intergovernmental, notably security and defense, common policy will continue to reflect the lowest common denominator of European preferences (sorry, Macron). But my view is that in areas where the EU has exclusive competence—trade, climate, energy, data, and, to a lesser extent, technology and industrial policy—rule-makers like Ursula von der Leyen, Margrethe Vestager, Frans Timmermans, and Valdis Dombrovkis are going to matter much more for European policy than European nation-states. With the US pivoting to Asia and China increasingly focused on domestic affairs, Brussels will have more space to flex its regulatory muscles and shape the global rules of the road in these core domains.
Upon taking office in 2019 as president of the European Commission, von der Leyen pledged she would lead a more “geopolitical” EU. Now’s her chance to show it.
Do you agree? Disagree? Let me know in the comments section below.