Emmanuel Macron has won a Pyrrhic victory. From the beginning of his presidency he has made winning Germany’s assent to a “Eurozone budget” a strategic goal. Conventional wisdom, which despite Macron’s wish to portray himself as a boldly original leader has more often than not been his guide, holds that such a budget is essential to the preservation of the common currency and, ergo, to the preservation of the European Union. Germany had been reluctant to go along. And now there is agreement.
Unfortunately, exactly what has been agreed to remains vague. This seems to be the common theme of recent international accords: the optics matter more than the substance. Kim and Trump shake hands, and the world is made safe for hypocrisy. Merkel and Macron shake hands, and Europe is back on its bicycle. Except that Merkel has given Macron only pennies on the dollars (pardon me, euros) originally requested and has scotched the ideas of a European finance minister and Eurozone parliament.
Worse, when Macron began his quest, Merkel was strong. Overcoming her reluctance would have meant something. Now she is weak, and her assent can be read as little more than a sign of her desperation. She needs a win even more than Macron does. But her victory may even by more Pyrrhic (if “Pyrrhic” admits of degrees) than his. If Horst Seehofer is actually determined to bring down her government, as he may be, then her concession to Macron will count against her as yet another “error,” comparable to her semi-open-door policy on immigration.
When Macron began his quest, moreover, the euro crisis seemed more urgent than the immigration crisis, and more fraught with ultimate peril for Europe. The opposite is true now. One has to hand it to the xenophobic right. They have learned, perhaps from Trump, how to use the symbolism of the immigration issue to wrong-foot their opponents. They appear “strong” and united and can portray their opponents as “weak” and confused. Cruelty and heartlessness are transformed into virtues; hesitation about the right course to take appears not thoughtful or prudent but vacillating and irresolute.
When Seehofer was pushed out of his Bavarian leadership by Söder, his political fortunes seemed to be on the downswing. But he took advantage of Merkel’s difficulty in forming a coalition to insist on the interior ministry for himself, doubtless with the calculation that he could use this key post to increase his leverage over the chancellor. When Salvini turned the plight of the Aquarius to advantage, Seehofer made his move. He now has Merkel on the ropes. And Merkel’s weakness weakens Macron. The prospect of any comprehensive EU agreement on immigration is virtually non-existent. Not even Trump’s extraordinary attack on Merkel seems capable of uniting Europe. Open US support for the far right, from Trump to Ambassador Grenell, is driving a stake into the heart of Europe, and the hope that the Franco-German motor could somehow be revved up to stave off the American challenge is fading. The summer of 2018 looks to be a summer of deep discontent.