December 21, 2018
Not just Brexit makes 2019 a year of EU uncertainty
This is the last briefing before the holidays. We wish our readers merry Christmas and a happy New Year. We will resume on Friday, January 4.
We would like to focus in our last briefing on what we consider one of the most important issues for 2019 - the uncertainty surrounding the political fates of Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron.
Merkel, thanks to her office but also to her personality, has played for many years such a quietly decisive role in the European Council that more than a few policy actors find it hard to imagine how things might turn out if the grand coalition in Germany were to fall apart and Merkel to step down as Chancellor. A complicating factor is that there are many who find it difficult to make out who Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer is. Her conservative position on an issue like gay marriage has been widely reported, creating confusion in people’s minds as to how much of a centrist she really is. This has given rise to fears that the CDU, once Merkel is no longer Chancellor, might become less 'European', and to concerns that Germany will no longer be as reliable as the ultimate political guarantor of the EU.
We believe that these fears have no basis in reality. But that they exist is revealing. Merkel’s policies have at times led to considerable strains within the EU but, at the end of the day, her peers saw the German chancellor as one of the most dependable factors in the upper stratum of European politics. The prospect of her possible departure in 2019 creates a feeling of deep unease.
With Macron, the unease is different but generates just as much anxiety. Will he be able to pursue his reform agenda? Will the French economy respond to it with better growth? Is it his re-election in 2022 still virtually a given? If Macron is seen to fail to regain control of events after his annus horribilis in 2018 — first the embarrassing Benalla affair involving his bodyguard, then the gilets jaunes storm — could Marine Le Pen, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, or someone like them make it to the Elysée?
The Franco-German couple is often criticised for its dominance in EU affairs. Now, there are fears that both partners might each become so self-involved that they might fail to provide enough joint leadership. Mark Rutte has spotted that Brexit on the one hand, and Merkel and Macron’s diminished stature on the other, might offer an opportunity. During the EU summit last week Donald Tusk, Jean-Claude Juncker, Macron, Merkel and Rutte discussed how to handle the Brexit problem. That Rutte joined the ‘big four’, turning the group into a ‘big five’, elicited no enthusiasm in the Italian, Polish or Spanish delegation. The impression was confirmed that The Hague seems to be trying try to turn Brexit into a Dutch power grab.
For the Franco-German relationship, too, 2019 will be a period of uncertainty. Macron cannot be sure that Merkel will be in office in a year's time. Merkel cannot be sure that Macron will not prematurely decay politically into a dangerously-lame duck. Merkel’s almost fulsome praise for Macron during the recent European summit shows that Berlin has understood how potentially perilous for Germany and Europe Macron’s more fragile position is. But with a big series of local and regional elections in Germany after the European one in May, and with the CDU trying to halt and reverse its own decline under a new leader, Macron cannot at this stage count on more than verbal support from his German partner.
It is true that Berlin has woken up from its Macron-induced complacency regarding the political landscape in France. That Berlin’s answer to Macron’s European reform drive was so lukewarm had a lot do to with the feeling that, with Macron’s re-election assured in any case, there was no need to make any special effort to help out the French president. But we believe it would take a stark rise in the polls for Le Pen, Mélenchon, or a similar figure to shock Germany next year into sacrificing some of its own short-term interests or orthodoxies and hand Macron a European win.