PARIS — President Emmanuel Macron is sorry about the political crisis in Germany, wishes France’s “main partner to be stable and strong,” and in the meantime will continue to work with Chancellor Angela Merkel because, after all, “the German government is still in place.”
That’s the party line outlined both by Macron and one of his aides on Monday.
But in French government circles, there are some who have begun arguing that the collapse of coalition government talks in Berlin could also provide, if managed well, a good opportunity for the French president to show that he’s the only major European leader still standing — ready to grab the mantle of leadership that may have just fallen off Merkel’s shoulders.
The news from Berlin is indeed bad for Macron. It will put on hold his grand plans to reform the eurozone and the EU as a whole, since no one in Berlin will have the political legitimacy to green-light even the start of substantial talks on the matter, noted a French diplomat.
The German crisis could also derail what the French side presented as a groundbreaking EU summit next month, which could have agreed on the best way to go forward to shore up the monetary union.
This is all the more painful for the French president because the general consensus at the Elysée Palace has long been that his window of opportunity would close around mid-2018, when the European Commission starts a de facto hibernation, as all eyes turn to the next European Parliament election due in the spring of 2019.
The collapse of coalition talks in Berlin can even be seen as Macron’s second German defeat in two months. In September, Germany’s Social Democrats got trounced in the polls. They’re the party with which the French president showed intellectual solidarity when he was economy minister, publishing regular joint papers with his then-counterpart Sigmar Gabriel on eurozone reforms and European integration.
Of the scenarios now contemplated in Berlin, the one Macron would no doubt prefer — another grand coalition between Merkel’s conservative CDU and the Social Democrats — is the one that the SPD has ruled out.
Merkel as the head of a minority government would be deprived of her authority to be bold on the European stage. And long months of yet another electoral campaign would transform her into a lame-duck chancellor, with major uncertainty about what would follow. “Another vote, if the [far-right] AfD comes out at more than 15 percent, could hit us hard,” said the French diplomat.
Far from disaster
Some government officials, however, cautioned that the news from Berlin is far from an unmitigated disaster for Macron. To begin with, the coalition talks didn’t fail on the parties’ respective positions on the eurozone, fiscal transfers, or the best way to reform the European economy. “Macron wasn’t the lightning rod in these, which was a relief,” said one.
And a Treasury official added, “the reality is that we’re not really in a rush” on eurozone reform. “It’s not like we actually need to, say, complete the banking union in the next few weeks.”
Furthermore, even though German political parties’ reactions to Macron’s ideas varied — with the relatively Euroskeptic FDP up in arms against fiscal transfers that would see German taxpayer money fund southern Europe’s supposed profligacy — “the core of the German stance on all this is well-known, and only nuances separate the different parties,” the official said.
The most optimistic among French diplomats and officials, who for now are a minority, believe Macron should seize the moment. “There’s a vacuum. He should embark on a few trips abroad and show that he’s still determined. Basic idea: There’s a new European leader in town,” one said. “Give a big speech to the European Parliament, make trips to Spain and Italy to show at last that he knows those two countries do count in Europe.”
At least one German commentator agreed that the vacuum at the top of Europe may soon need filling.
“If Europe has a leader at all, it is Mr. Macron. It is now his turn to worry about Germany being too weak to assist in the triumphs he needs to reform France and Europe,” noted Andreas Kluth on Monday in the global edition of Handelsblatt.
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