Angela Merkel’s election victory gives her a position of strength at the European Union’s top table not seen since the days of Charles De Gaulle. The rest of the European Union will be praying that she does not use it. The margin of victory for Merkel’s Christian Democrats in Germany’s federal elections on Sunday was so great that for a moment it looked as if she might obtain an outright majority in the Bundestag. She came within five seats of not needing a coalition partner – something that has not happened in (West) Germany’s electoral history since 1957, ie, before the creation of the European Economic Community on 1 January 1958.
Merkel may have fallen short of the outright majority, but she is once again the leader of the EU’s most economically and politically powerful member state, and now with a strengthened electoral mandate. Ironically she would be even stronger, and would not need a coalition with the centre-left SPD, were it not for the weakness of her previous coalition partner, the liberals.
Her pre-eminence in Europe is not just down to her electoral success; it is also a consequence of the weakness of others. François Hollande, though he received an electoral mandate barely 16 months ago, looks no match. Since May 2012, his support has ebbed away at home, and he has not established himself abroad. David Cameron, the British prime minister, is excluded from eurozone decision-making, and through his domestic promise of a referendum on EU membership has handicapped his negotiating position in the EU. Italy’s Enrico Letta can barely keep his own fractious coalition intact, let alone exert influence in Europe. Mariano Rajoy, weakened by a corruption scandal and Spain’s parlous economic condition, is similarly peripheral.
It is hard to think of a time when one national leader was so far ahead of his or her counterparts in the European Council. Valéry Giscard d’Estaing was balanced by Helmut Schmidt; Helmut Kohl by François Mitterand and then Jacques Chirac. There were times when Margaret Thatcher and then John Major also exerted influence. In recent times, Nicolas Sarkozy sought at least to attach himself to Merkel’s coat-tails. Further back, Georges Pompidou was balanced by Willy Brandt. What makes the lack of balance even more striking is that the days of a powerful president of the European Commission are gone. Neither José Manuel Barroso (nor his successor) can match the influence once enjoyed by Jacques Delors. And Herman Van Rompuy, the first occupant of the post of president of the European Council, has not used his office to counter the power of the strongest of the national leaders.
De Gaulle is a disturbing precedent, since his behaviour towards the EU was frequently disruptive and occasionally destructive. Happily, Merkel does not appear to share many of the character traits of the erstwhile leader of the Free French. Her caution is the stuff of legend. Even if unrestrained by others, she will exercise self-restraint. However, if the appearance that Germany has a free hand persists, it will be damaging both for the eurozone and the EU.
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