As the EU prepares to come together on July 17 to debate a 750 billion euro stimulus package, Germany’s takeover of the European Commission presidency could not have come at a more opportune moment. Chancellor Angela Merkel, a leader whose star seemed to be fading before the coronavirus pandemic, has evolved into one of the world’s most pragmatic leaders in the face of the crisis.
Leveraging Two Decades of Power
Together with French President Emmanuel Macron, the EU’s new president is the ace card in pushing the bloc to take drastic action to limit the economic repercussions of COVID-19. To be certain, it is unprecedented for Berlin to agree to a proposal like Merkel’s. Essentially, the 750 billion euro economic recovery plan will result in Germany taking on a lion’s share of the debt in order to prop up its European neighbors.
For Merkel, the consequences of inaction in the EU would undoubtedly have significant consequences for Berlin, as it depends on trade between bloc members. Almost 70% of its exports are to bloc members, as Deutsche Welle reported.
“Europe’s future is our future,” Merkel said, standing next to Macron.
Dealing With Opposition to the Plan
The plan, devised by former president Ursula von der Leyen, who also served as Merkel’s defence minister, faces opposition from some more cautious members of the bloc. The Netherlands, Denmark, and Austria are reluctant to agree to grants and prefer loans instead, with conditions, Bloomberg reported. Sweden is also reportedly looking for a better deal, according to Brinkwire.
Merkel’s challenge will be to convince them that unifying their forces is the best way to survive the economic fallout.
“I must tell you that the positions of the member states are still far apart,” Merkel told EU policymakers on her first day in the role.
Although there exist points of contention among the member states, there have been signals from the opposition that they can be placated. She has help from Macron on this matter, exemplifying the bond the two have forged over the years.
‘It’s Our Absolute Priority’
“The chancellor and I put it on paper: It’s our absolute priority. Without this, Europe wouldn’t rise to the challenge,” Macron said. Referring to states who don’t agree with the particulars, he said “it is not in their interest to see some members, especially important markets in the European economy, affected.”
Merkel, however, is the main power player in guiding the EU into the arms of the French-German recovery plan, and her position affords her the chance to do so. Merkel throwing her weight behind the EU recovery proposal is her political farewell tour and a perfect play before she rides off into the sunset.
Merkel’s Last Hurrah
The chancellor announced she would not seek reelection in 2021 and as her term for the European Commission presidency will also end next year, the iconic leader will be on the outside for the first time in two decades.
Under Merkel’s leadership, Berlin successfully navigated the adoption of the euro and the 2008 financial crash. More recently, she has had to cope with immigration resulting from 20 years of Middle East turmoil and Brexit. Immigration in particular had proven to be a strain on Merkel’s party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU). In fact, before COVID-19 gripped the world, Merkel and the CDU were quickly falling out of favor with Germans.
After her presumed successor, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer resigned as party chairwoman, the CDU’s power was thrown into question, and that could still be the case if COVID-19 recedes before the next election. Far-right nationalists flocked to Alternative for German (AfD), but it was The Left party and the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SDP) that benefited the most at Merkel’s expense, according to POLITICO polling.
However, Merkel’s handling of the COVID-19 has seen support for the CDU reaching for new all-time highs. A May 7 survey buy Infratest dimap/ARD revealed 67% of Germans are satisifed or very satisfied with their government’s response and only 9% are not satisfied. The CDU gained 5 points among voters at the expense of the Greens and AfD.
While COVID-19 has been a stress test for most world leaders, for Merkel it has been an opportunity to remind Germans why she is quite possibly the most effective EU leader. Her alliance with Macron has empowered the EU and enabled it to weather weakened American leadership and to confront rising threats from Russia and China.
Tough Road Ahead
Although Merkel won’t be at the helm next year, her leadership placed Germany and the EU on a path to become the global power broker. The challenges have never been more immense—the world is still reeling from the coronavirus pandemic, which appears increasingly likely to continue to ravage the planet for the remainder of the year.
Then there is Brexit, a looming deadline that ticks away regardless of progress made or not made. Merkel has taken a hard line stance on negotiations with the UK and declared it will “have to live with the consequences” if an agreement is not reached.
Finally, there is the growing threat of Beijing, which is carrying out ethnic genocide, running concentration camps, crushing democracy in Hong Kong, and trying to buy influence at every opportunity. The Chinese threat, if anything, is Merkel’s primary failure, a problem for which she offered no solution. However, nearly every Western leader can be faulted with that, aside from US President Donald Trump who continues to wield sanctions against China.
Merkel’s successor, both as EU Commission president and chancellor of Germany, will face worse challenges than Merkel endured, but the outgoing leader has prepared the EU and Germany well for the times ahead.