Merkel’s Vision Meets Macron’s–and Salvini’s

Arthur Goldhammer
7 June 2018

Angela Merkel has never been a leader in a hurry. She took six months to form her current coalition government. She has taken even longer to respond to Emmanuel Macron’s repeated prodding to get Europe moving again. He had made Europe a theme of his campaign. He flew to Germany immediately after his inauguration. He made a major speech on Europe in Athens and another just after the German elections in late September 2017.

From the German side came positive murmurs but nothing more. This wasn’t because Merkel believed–as some in France have begun to believe–that on Europe Macron is all hat and no cattle, as they say in Texas. As Macron in power has shifted from the “ni droite ni gauche” of the campaign to the “ni gauche ni gauche” of his reforms, he has spurred the suspicion at home that Europe is merely his alibi for the deferral, if not the erasure, of the promised “social” and “ecological” pillars of that objet politique non-identifié, le Macronisme. In Germany, however, the temporizing was not seen as “a dream deferred” or denied but rather as business as usual: temporizing has always been Merkel’s preferred governing style.

But now the chancellor has spoken, first in an interview with FAZ last Sunday, then in a speech in Berlin on Monday. Both interventions were echt Merkel, cautious, tentative, and much clearer about the nein (though pronounced sotto voce) than about the ja, robustly enunciated but not backed by the commitment of actual cash or hardware.

The caution was even less surprising than it might have been in different circumstances. But in the event Merkel’s delay had only bought her more tsuris rather than breathing room. The Italians had just put together a government after their own months-long period of dithering and backroom dealing, and it was a government that thundered into office with resounding anti-EU and anti-German rhetoric reminiscent of Syriza’s accession to power in Greece. This only strengthened the hand of Merkel’s hungry opposition at home, especially in her own party. She was therefore in no position to concede much to Macron and his expansive vision for transforming Europe into something less like a bureaucracy of petty power brokers and more like a state.

So she brushed off any suggestion of a European finance minister or debt mutualization. She refused to “speculate” about the “intentions” of the Italian government, even though no speculation was necessary: it was already perfectly clear that the Italians would demand help in repelling new migrants from their borders and relief from the burden of migrants already ensconced within their borders.

On these issues the chancellor has some room for maneuver, since there is broad consensus within Germany and Europe generally that the frontiers need to be tightened–on this and other security issues her opponents as well as her allies are willing to open the German pocketbook. So she would talk to the Italians, despite their hostility, because her wish was to make Europe handlungsfähig.

She also noted the need to invest, but hardly on the scale Macron envisioned. He dangled sugar plums of sums amounting to several points of European GDP; she talked of a paltry 10 billion euros, not even half a point of German GDP. This would not get Europe moving again much less make it great again, especially in the face of the impending end of quantitative easing by the ECB. Her answer to the problems of the euro was not investment but banking union, meaning rules rather than discretion, always the preferred German position (while glossing over the difficulties that have been encountered in the attempt to forge an actual agreement on such a union).

On Monday Merkel quoted Kant: ““He who has no goals must endure his fate; he who has a purpose can shape it.” Reaching for the heavy tomes on the bookshelf of German philosophy is always a good way for a statesperson to lend tone to an otherwise flabby declaration. Kant filled the bill nicely, and it would have been impolite to ask Merkel exactly what purpose she had in mind.

One awaits Macron’s response. He, too, has an ample bookshelf from which to draw. But while these two erudite leaders trade resonant quotations from the philosophical empyrean, Italian vice-premier Salvini speaks in his own earthier voice: “È finita la pacchia per i clandestini, preparratevi a fare le valige” (Illegals, the gravy train is finished, pack your bags).

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1 Comment

  • brent says:

    Noting the photo of Merkel at the G-7, gazing with disgust at the puerile Donald Trump and absorbing his latest round of nonsensical verbal emissions, I do wonder if and why she isn’t increasingly convinced of the need for a stronger and more univocal European response. Guy Verhofstadt makes this point in a recent Project Syndicate essay
    [https://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/america-first-europe-united-by-guy-verhofstadt-2018-06] and I can imagine it becoming a theme in the coming EU elections–an obvious rejoinder to the populist threat. Might Macron’s much-belabored sycophancy in Washington prove to be another Napoleonic feint on the way to such a show-down?

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