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26 June 2021

Overrated - now fading

Angela Merkel is a political operator of the highest calibre. But she has never been a strategic actor, except in respect of her own position. This is why the most absurd thing that has ever been said about her was the accolade of leader of the western world. Last week, she was not even a leader of the EU when she failed in an attempt to get other heads of government to agree to the resumption of high-level diplomacy with Vladimir Putin.

Merkel and Emmanuel Macron were irked because Biden talked to Putin first. Like children in a playground, they did not want to be left out. And they didn’t think for a minute what impact this would have, on the Baltic states in particular.

Toomas Hendrik Ilves, a former president of Estonia, accused Merkel of treating his countrymen like the Ost-Untermenschen of the Zwischenländer. Gustav Gressel from the European Council on Foreign Relations wrote that Merkel had destroyed her legacy in 24 hours. I think it is worse than that. All that happened was that an unstrategic politician was revealed. It was never different, except that this time more people saw it.

A lot of the things that are wrong with German foreign policy right now are the result of decisions taken by Merkel a long time ago. In 2011 she reacted to the Fukushima nuclear accident by pulling the plug on German nuclear energy. That fateful decision was a disaster on so many levels: Germany ended up over-reliant on Russian gas and oil and on Nord Stream 2; this, in turn, gave rise to a sense of betrayal in the Baltic states, Poland, and Ukraine. In the process she managed to do damage to transatlantic relations, which are only now being repaired.

When the global financial crisis broke out in 2008, she insisted each member state should take care of its own banks. In 2012, she categorically ruled out eurobonds. The euro area might have collapsed that year had it not been for Mario Draghi’s intervention. When the pandemic broke out, she was bounced into accepting a recovery fund - an act that is widely misunderstood outside Germany as the first in a series of steps towards a fiscal union.

I am no fan of Gerhard Schröder, her predecessor, not even of his reform agenda, which I criticised at the time as damaging to the cohesion of the euro area. But to give him credit, Schröder did what he thought was right. He did it knowing fully well that the reforms would sink him - as they did.

Merkel never did a thing like this. Her decision to open the border for refugees was not a strategic choice, but a spontaneous executive act. She did not consult with the coalition partners, nor with other EU member states. In her entire 16 years as chancellor, she never chose a strategic battle, never tried to seek majorities where none existed before. The sole purpose of Merkel was Merkel.

Merkel’s lasting legacy for the EU will be a recognition that strategic autonomy has been tried and that it failed. Neither Merkel nor Macron have provide strategic leadership. If you look at the field of potential successors, I see no change on the horizon. The EU's future success will depend critically on weaning itself off the illusion of Franco-German leadership. Any discussion on strategic autonomy should start with strategy, and not with who gets to sit on the chair or the sofa, as it is done today.

The events of Last week ended another European delusion - the idea of majority voting on foreign policy. If majority voting had been in place, a majority of 20 countries would have been able to outvote the seven, mostly smaller countries, who objected. The Baltics will stick to the veto because they know full well what happens when they don't.

The Merkel years were also the last hooray of a bygone, late-industrial era. When it ends, people will ask the uncomfortable questions they did not ask during those years: why did a rich country like Germany fail to invest in new technologies? Why did she refuse to lay solid foundations for the euro area? Why did she do business with Putin and make her country dependent on Russia's natural resources? Why did she agree to climate change targets and then fail to implement them?

I concluded a long time ago that Merkel is the most over-rated political leader of our time. Last week a few more people began to see that too.

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