“We Europeans really must take our destiny into our own hands.” With this short sentence, uttered in a sweaty and overcrowded beer tent in Munich in May 2017, German Chancellor Angela Merkel implied that the most successful relationship in modern political history was at an end. In doing so, she also laid claim to leadership of the West.
That position used to be occupied by the president of the United States, who sometimes invoked the British prime minister as a junior partner. But as the US loses its bearings under Donald Trump and the UK succumbs to a new provincialism after its Brexit vote, the mantles of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher are now being worn by a very different power couple: Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron. They have vowed to defend the core values of the West against an onslaught of populism and nativism, and to strengthen Europe’s common currency, manage its borders, and invest in a common defense.
It is a remarkable turn of events: After the twentieth century, who would have thought that Britain and America would turn their backs on the liberal world order while the German chancellor would be spoken of as the leader of the free world and a French president would emerge as the champion of an open trading system? Who would have thought that this new momentum would come from the European Union at the very moment when many predicted its collapse? Most of all, who would have thought that Angela Merkel would lead it?
Merkel is not someone who shoots from the hip. She does not do the “vision thing.” And according to her biographer, Stefan Kornelius, “she does not have an anti-American bone in her body.” So why is she now putting herself in a position that requires vision, leadership, and a will to replace the Americans?
In part, it is because she had no choice. The European Union was in danger of being torn apart by internal and external threats. The Brexit vote followed deep divisions over refugees and the euro. EU leaders were terrified that other member states could succumb to the same combination of economic uncertainty, cultural anxiety, and political alienation that propelled Britain toward the exit. They were right to fear contagion but wrong about where it would erupt. Rather than another EU member state, it was the US that succumbed.
From the birth of the Marshall Plan, through the cold war, to the unification of Germany, the US was crucial to the project of European integration. The US made access to its financial aid dependent on European reconciliation, provided military protection for Europe’s civilian governments through NATO, and backed the EU’s mission to create a legal and institutional foundation for the liberal world order. In the days and months after his election, Trump threatened all of this. His proxies compared the European Union to the Soviet Union, while he supported Marine Le Pen over Emmanuel Macron in the French presidential election and declared NATO obsolete. Trump has announced his intention of dismantling the institutions that Europe has spent the last several decades building, from the Paris climate treaty to the World Trade Organization and the Iran nuclear deal.
But rather than going viral, the populism of Trump and Brexit seemed to generate powerful antibodies around the Continent. Within a few days of Trump’s victory, opinion polls showed support for EU membership surging in many European countries. Then, after a worrisome year in which many feared the destruction of democratic Europe, a series of elections began to signal a remarkable rebirth of the European project.
It started in Austria in December 2016, when an elderly Green Party professor, Alexander Van der Bellen, was elected president over the far-right Freedom Party’s candidate, Norbert Hofer. Then in March, Dutch voters supported Mark Rutte’s center-right People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy over the colorful populist Geert Wilders’s far-right Party for Freedom. Most dramatically, the thirty-nine-year-old Macron upended the politics of France’s Fifth Republic to win the presidential election there, defeating the charismatic Le Pen and her far-right National Front.
The French election became a battle between globalism and nationalism, and Macron’s victory was seen as reversing the populist tide. “For the first time in a lengthy period I see light at the end of the tunnel,” one of Merkel’s closest associates told me. “When we had Brexit, Trump elected, Poland and Hungary going their own ways, there was a lack of solidarity on refugees, an economic problem not solved…and in the middle of all this, we had Macron, who said that he wanted to be able to work with Germany and defend Europe together.”
After the elections in September in Germany, it is now clear that Angela Merkel will remain chancellor, even if she is facing the toughest coalition negotiations of her political life. The fact that she suffered significant losses to the far-right Alternative für Deutschland party will reduce her authority and embolden those who want her to put the national interest above a broader European agenda. However, the diminishment of Merkel’s power might not be such a bad thing for Europe if it allows France to recover some opportunity for leadership.
In the months ahead, Macron and Merkel will have to challenge some of the obsessions of their countries’ pasts as they seek a grand bargain. Germany will have to agree to share its money, mutualize European debt, and invest more in defense. In return, France will have to undertake painful economic reforms and find ways to open some of the nation’s main political assets, such as its permanent seat on the UN Security Council and its nuclear deterrent, to German involvement. But one of the reasons that the two leaders seem confident is that they are doing it together, following the example of Helmut Kohl and François Mitterrand, who made history by trading the reunification of Germany for the creation of a single European currency.
Emmanuel Macron’s big idea is captured by his slogan “l’Europe qui protège”—his attempt to show voters that Europe has their back. The idea of protection has many elements. He wants a common budget, a finance minister, and a parliament for the eurozone, as well as an EU border force and a common fund for building up defense capabilities. Macron has been calling on the EU to protect its labor and environmental standards in trade deals. He wants to screen Chinese investments and introduce a “Buy European Act” for public procurement. His advisers are launching a campaign against what they see as the two big ills of our age: “le dumping social” (using cheap foreign labor to undercut local wages) and “le dumping fiscal” (exploiting low-tax countries to avoid paying higher taxes in other member states).
This marks a substantial change. Over the last three decades the European project has been based on the idea that the way to eliminate conflict was to tear down walls and to build interdependence between countries. But today, interdependence is the source of anxiety and conflict as people worry about the financial instability of the euro, social dumping as a result of border-free travel, and terrorism. The next phase of European integration will not be about pulling down barriers, but about convincing those most affected by interdependence that it can feel safe again. And rather than being a unitary European project that aspires to include the whole continent in institutions based in Brussels, the EU will be a more flexible union with coalitions of the willing, as well as smaller groups such as the eurozone that are more tightly bound together.
The new French president has assembled a tight-knit group of advisers who are young, brilliant achievers—like Macron himself. Macron and his two closest advisers, Alexis Kohler and Ismaël Emelien, were described in Le Monde as a “Holy Trinity” from which all ideas and actions radiate. The forty-four-year-old Kohler and the thirty-year-old Emelien are said to stand for the left and right sides of Macron’s brain. Kohler, who was the intellectual driving force in the Economics Ministry when Macron was its head, is a technocrat’s technocrat. Emelien is the creative one, bringing the tactics of Silicon Valley to French decision-making. Where Kohler looks like an official, his younger counterpart has cultivated his image as a nerd. What’s more, in every important ministry, there is a network of high-ranking staff members who share a generational perspective, a personal link with the president, and a mix of pragmatism and “control freakery.” When you now visit the gilded French ministerial offices with their twenty-foot-high ceilings and parquet floors, you find the chief advisers looking more like disheveled interns than august officeholders.
Even as public support for Macron fell more than 20 percent over the summer, he and his staff were intoxicated by what they have already achieved. Eighteen months ago, Macron didn’t have a political party. Nine months ago, nobody thought that he had a chance to be elected. Six months ago, people talked about how his campaign was imploding after he called colonialism a crime against humanity. Now he is not only president but has a huge majority in parliament, has unsettled all the mainstream political parties, and has redefined the political landscape of France.
The heart of Macron’s pitch is a promise to do for the French economy what he and his advisers have done for its politics, cutting through the conventional wisdoms and tired nostrums about change being impossible. Macron summed up their analysis in a memorable quote: “France is not a country that you reform, it’s a country that you transform, a country of revolution. So as long as it’s possible not to reform, France doesn’t do it. This time, people saw they were at the edge of a precipice and they reacted.”
Macron’s advisers see this domestic economic revolution as the beginning of a process of building credibility with Germany. As one of them admitted: “Germany has massive doubts about France’s commitment to reforms. It would be willing to take on responsibility for the eurozone and debt mutualization if it had a partner leading the eurozone. But Berlin can’t take on all the costs alone.” Macron’s bet is that, by introducing a reform of the French labor market modeled on the German “Agenda 2010” reforms of the 2000s—which made it easier for employers to hire staff and encouraged unemployed people to seek work rather than rely on benefits—and by reducing the French deficit to below 3 percent of GDP, the Germans will start to trust him to institute responsible economic policies. It is still early, but he has shown such courage and determination in the face of protests against his reforms of labor laws that many expect him to pull off reforms that eluded his predecessors.
Part of Macron’s project of reassuring the Germans has been a systematic recruitment of German-speaking officials for senior posts in his government. The prime minister, Édouard Philippe, went to school in Bonn, the former German capital, where his father was the headmaster of a French school. The economics minister, Bruno Le Maire, developed a passion for German language and culture as an exchange student. He regularly appears on German television and is said to use the familiar du with German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble. Macron also named the French ambassador to Germany, Philippe Étienne, as his national security adviser, something that was noted with joy when I spoke to senior German officials.
Macron’s team is quite clear that as long as the economic disparity between France and Germany remains, it will be difficult for France to make its peace with further European unification because it will look too much like enslavement to Germany. However, as the influential French strategic commentator François Heisbourg told me, Macron’s engagement with other great powers may reassure the French public about their nation’s position in the world. Even the most seasoned foreign policy advisers speak with admiration about the confident way he handled his early encounters with Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump, and Theresa May.
Germany has the opposite challenge. It needs to become more French. How far the Germans will be willing to concede to Macron’s plans for eurozone reform is still unclear. Although Merkel responded positively to Macron’s big European reform agenda when he laid it out in a speech at the Sorbonne on September 26, she faces skepticism from possible coalition partners in the free-market Free Democratic Party as well as inside her own party.
Someone close to her was dismissive of the idea that Macron needs to deliver on a European budget and a finance minister, telling me: “Farmers in France do not care about a European finance minister. They will feel better when Europe is defending them.” He suggested that Germany will try to divert the French into other priorities, such as migration and defense. He went so far as saying that “the EU could survive another euro crisis, but not another migration crisis, because open borders are part of the constitutional foundation of the EU—if inner-European borders close, it will be the end of the EU, while another economic crisis would not be as threatening.”
A strange thing happened in Germany a few weeks after the 2016 US election. The editor of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, a newspaper known as the cautious and stuffy mouthpiece of the establishment, published an opinion piece calling for Germany to develop its own nuclear program, because the French and British arsenals were too weak to counterbalance doubts about the willingness of the US to defend Europe. It is hard to grasp how extraordinary this is. Thirty years ago, the annual carnival celebrations in Cologne were called off when the US launched Operation Desert Storm, because people didn’t want to party while a war was going on.
Now some in the German media are contemplating a domestic nuclear deterrent. The debate became more serious when Roderich Kiesewetter, a loyal MP from Merkel’s governing party and a former military officer, called for Germany to turn the French nuclear program into a European one and to cofinance it. This brought out a predictable response from the pacifist and anti-American voices in the Green Party and Die Linke. But even many of the stalwarts of the German foreign policy establishment felt that merely thinking about this was the apotheosis of irresponsibility.
In fact there have been discussions for a long time about how France and Germany could strengthen their cooperation on strategic matters. They explored a wide range of issues, and touched upon what one French official called “the crown jewels of French sovereignty”: the nuclear deterrent and the Security Council seat.
Even those involved in the discussions are cautious about where they might ultimately end up. A senior French official observed: “There are real questions about sovereignty. There shouldn’t be a German veto on the French veto at the UN.” And there remain differences between the two countries over Syria and various African conflicts. Yet the “crown jewels” represent a way for Macron to put symbolic geopolitics in the service of his economic goals. “I could imagine Macron going for these symbols of the force de frappe and the Security Council seat and making a big play,” a German official told me. “It would be to Europe’s advantage, not just to look at technical economic things, but also these bigger things, because it would create a sense of balance between France and Germany.”
But is Merkel ready to bypass the United States and to work with France to lead Europe? “All of a sudden, Merkel has to do something that she was never good at: deal with France,” Stefan Kornelius told me. “She tried to do it with Sarkozy. Ideologically, they were not far from each other. But at the level of chemistry it did not work. She’s much more comfortable dealing with Anglo-Saxons. She finds France much more difficult.”
The very expression “German leadership” once frightened many countries, but above all it frightened the German governing elite itself. For the first few years of the euro crisis, Germany was in denial about its power and importance in Europe, often saying: “We don’t want to lead, we just want others to follow the rules.” An important shift in German self-perception came as a result of a memorable speech in November 2011 in Berlin by Radek Sikorski, then Polish foreign minister, in which he said, “I fear Germany’s power less than I am beginning to fear its inactivity.” He also called Germany Europe’s indispensable nation.
Over time, Berlin became more comfortable with using its power to map out a way of managing (if not solving) the euro crisis, and this allowed it to have a very important part in the crises over Crimea and refugees. Yet there was never a plan for German leadership, and Germans are still whitewashing their exercise of it with qualifying attributes, such as “leading from behind,” “leading from the middle,” and, most recently, “servant leadership.”
Germany has often used economic power to achieve economic ends, but lately something different has evolved: a willingness to put it at the service of a more strategic geopolitical view. In its policies toward Russia, Turkey, China, and the US, Germany has increasingly used its economic strength to advance its political goals. After Putin annexed Crimea in March 2014, it was Merkel rather than Barack Obama who led the diplomatic effort to deescalate the conflict. Germany also negotiated a deal with Turkey to reduce the flow of refugees to Europe, in the process changing the focus of the EU’s relationship with Ankara from Turkey’s desire to join the EU to a tough-minded assessment of what Europe needs from Turkey.
Merkel has also been shoring up Germany’s geopolitical position by diversifying its international partnerships, especially with China. But the big change came with her approach to the United States. “The era in which we could fully rely on others is over to some extent,” she said in her beer tent speech in May, adding, “That’s what I experienced over the past several days.” She was talking at the end of Trump’s first trip to Europe, where he dismayed Europeans with his statements on the future of NATO, free trade, and climate change. What makes Merkel’s recent views particularly striking is the fact that she is a staunch Atlanticist who was extremely critical of her predecessor, the Social Democratic chancellor Gerhard Schröder, when he tried to distance himself from the US following its intervention in Iraq in 2003.
Germany has traditionally been divided about its position in the world, alternating between liberal Atlanticism and a more Russia-friendly search for a Sonderweg—a special path. The influential historian Heinrich August Winkler has characterized Germany’s postwar history as a long return to the West, culminating with national reunification. But Merkel’s May speech shows that there is for the first time a contradiction between what Winkler calls the “normative project of the West” and the alliance with Washington. Her speech seems to show that in quite a fundamental way, for Germany to fully embrace its Western identity, it has to put some distance between Berlin and Trump’s Washington.
People who know Merkel well are somewhat cautious about this claim. Stefan Kornelius told me, “Merkel does not share the view that America is lost to the West. She sees Trump as a temporary phenomenon.” A senior German official told me in an interview that the Germans look beyond Trump to such “grownups” as National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and Defense Secretary James Mattis as well as to Congress. However, he does think that Merkel is serious about ending Europe’s reliance on the US: “She has said before in the Bundestag that the American security guarantee was not forever.” She had previously felt that President Obama was turning his back on Europe. Her aides explained that this made her statement very different from Schröder’s during the Iraq war, and in many ways more fundamental. As the official put it to me: “Schröder ruled at a time when America was still the world’s policeman. The chancellor is saying this at a time when the Americans don’t want to do that anymore.”
These big shifts have also been noted by the French, who traditionally have been critical of German foreign policy. A senior French diplomat told me that the refugee crisis had changed everything: “Merkel’s Germany is nothing like Germany fifteen years ago. She thought they could have a global trade policy that wouldn’t be affected by the war in Syria, but then the war erupted in Germany with the flow of refugees.” This created an enormous change in the German psyche. It opened the way for Germany to send troops to Mali, to support the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq, and to engage with problems in the Sahel, he said. “This is an incredible opportunity.”
For Merkel, the shift from being a reactive and pragmatic leader to being an international stateswoman has been gradual. I asked some of her close associates how she felt about being called the “leader of the free world.” One said that she was “shell-shocked” and hated it. Another said: “She rejects this. She thinks that she is only there by default. Cameron made a mistake, Hollande was too weak, the Italians are not serious. Germany will never be in a position to do what the US did.” However, both her actions and her words over the last couple of years have turned her into a custodian of the liberal West. Her statement that she was only willing to build a relationship with Trump on the basis of shared values was rapidly followed by a willingness to reach out to other powers, including China, on climate change and trade. A senior German official told me:
Ultimately Merkel is reactive, so not much will come from her. For her this is not an inflection point in global history…it is just the thirteenth year of her chancellorship. If any of this is going to happen, it will come from France.
So will any of it happen? There are reasons for skepticism. Exciting though it is to talk of Merkel as the “leader of the free world” and to watch the vigor of Macron’s handshake with the American president, there are clear limits to the power of Europeans to shape the global situation. Xi Jinping in China, Narendra Modi in India, Vladimir Putin in Russia, and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey can be tactical partners for the EU, but they are not allies in the defense of a liberal world order. At the same time, divisions among the EU’s member states are wide, and the their solidarity is ebbing.
Some observers of the push for European unity and emancipation from the United States see ghosts of 2003. At that time, there was a perception in many European capitals that a crazy US president was threatening global stability. He had declared the Kyoto protocol on climate dead, withdrawn from arms control agreements, and launched an invasion of Iraq against the will of important allies and the United Nations.
At that time, French President Jacques Chirac and German Chancellor Schröder also made common cause and posed as defenders of the liberal world order. They were willing to make overtures to Russia and China in pursuit of that goal. In Beijing, Wen Jiabao declared 2003 China’s year of Europe. And in Brussels, Schröder and Chirac convened European leaders to strengthen Europe’s common defense. This was followed shortly afterward by an attempt to write a constitution for Europe, which would give the continent a president and a foreign minister.
In the end, all this hope was stillborn. French and Dutch voters killed the constitution in referendums. Obama’s election ended the urgency of emancipation from the US. And the euro crisis pulled Europe inward and divided Paris and Berlin. One of the French officials I spoke with counsels against putting too much faith in Europe’s horror of Trump:
If we rely on him as a driver of European integration, we will be disappointed because he will never be destructive enough and will therefore never create the prise de conscience which Europe needs. Unless a crisis erupts that’s about core European interests, there are all sorts of things that will pull Europe back to its core transatlantic instincts—whether it’s the adults in the room or the spat developing between Washington and Moscow.
But many officials think that 2017 will be more hopeful for European unity than 2003 was. The French and German economies are in much better shape, with growth returning to the eurozone. There are fewer divisions within “old” Europe. But above all, there are Brexit and Trump. On the one hand, the UK will not be able to block EU policies, and on the other, the US is abdicating its responsibilities as global policeman. Moreover, Merkel and Macron seem to understand the limits and the opportunities that they face. Rather than defending the world of yesterday, they will need to reinvent the EU’s relationships with other nations and with its own citizens and states. That will mean a shift from seeing the EU as a revolutionary project that will remake the world to seeing it as a protective one that can make people feel safe in an interdependent world. Merkel and Macron will have to lead a development from universalism to exceptionalism.
It has become a cliché that the European project was born of failure rather than success. As Paul Valéry said of Europe after World War I, “we hope vaguely but dread precisely.” In recent years these dreads have been fading, and a new generation of populist leaders has been hoping for a different kind of future—one that looks strikingly like a return to the past. However, the annus horribilis of 2016 may have changed that. If the original project could claim Hitler and Stalin as its founding fathers, it is still possible that Brexit and Trump will be credited for the latest impulse toward EU integration. As one wag put it, Britain and America will have saved Europe from destruction for the third time in a century.