No leader is indispensable, but it does feel like the future of Europe stands or falls with Angela Merkel. She’s been the godmother of the European Union for almost 15 years, and other leaders have learnt to accept one unspoken rule: Merkel is the adjudicator. Her aura of supreme power infuriated Nicolas Sarkozy, who wanted it for himself. Greece’s leftist leader, Alexis Tsipras, fumed that Merkel wanted to make his country a vassal state, ruled by Berlin and the gnomes of Frankfurt. But now she’s at risk of losing her power, and even her enemies fear that her absence will pull Europe in different and conflicting directions.
One newly elected European leader once explained Merkel’s role in Europe to me. He arrived in Brussels for a crisis summit, and wasn’t sure that the currency union would live to fight another day. His anxiety got bigger during the long dinner meeting. Several leaders were in multiple shouting matches. Two were tipsy. One had spilled the béarnaise over his trousers and sprayed the room with vinegar and tarragon. Another had to leave for what everyone suspected was an appointment with a mistress. But the room suddenly turned quiet when ‘Mother started to speak’.
The EU has been an unhappy family, but Mutti Merkel has brought unity and peace to its high table. That’s all the more remarkable, since she seldom had much to say. Like all German politicians, Merkel was unimaginative about how to stop the financial rot from spreading to countries like Italy. Often, she was neither here nor there. But she had an asset that most leaders can only dream of — authority. When she talked, others listened. The squabbling stopped. Without her, who will have this effect?
Emmanuel Macron is a young man in a hurry, and he draws the support of other radicals like Jean-Claude Juncker. But they are part of a dying federalist breed and their vision of Europe is fundamentally at odds with the view in most capitals. Other leaders are silent, but that’s because they don’t know what to make of Europe’s post-crisis turmoil. There’s no immediate crisis any more that can concentrate their minds.
Not many European leaders will put their fragile political power to the service of Europe. Austria’s Sebastian Kurz and Mark Rutte of the Netherlands have too many other worries, as do the Nordic premiers. Support for the European Union may have recovered, but nowhere in Europe does that opinion chime with the arithmetic of political power. Many leaders are saving what precious little influence they have for the consequences of Brexit in European politics.
Countries such as Poland and Hungary have already left for another political orbit. The Visegrad 4 — Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, the Czech Republic — want to play by their own rules. Spain is preoccupied by the Catalan secession, or the threat of it. And Italy looks to be a few months away from having a populist government that will call a referendum on the euro.
‘No Experiments!’ was the campaign slogan of Konrad Adenauer, Germany’s post-war leader, and that’s how many feel about Europe now. Merkel’s political persona has always been closer to Adenauer than Helmut Kohl, and that’s why she knows that Europe may break apart if integrationist policies go too far. Merkel hasn’t been warming to ideas about a fiscal union and shared responsibilities for public debt. She knows that the quest for national identity around Europe is real: she learnt the hard way that it is a doomed project to force countries to accept refugees. Her idea of Europe may lack vision, but it is rich on realism. If she falls, there’s no one else there with her standing and sense of pragmatism.
The Brexit vote was representative of one of the big political undercurrents in European politics, a force that was moderated by Merkel. Without her, or anyone else with a unifying idea about the EU, the cracks in its thin ice will turn into dangerous splits.