Sidelined Germany's Incredibly Shrinking Role on the World Stage
With a wayward president at the helm in the United States, the world has become a more dangerous place. In response, though, German Chancellor Angela Merkel is once again steering Germany to the foreign policy sidelines, clearing the way for French President Emmanuel Macron. By DER SPIEGEL Staff
Emmanuel Macron's En Marche party doesn't yet have a single seat in the European Parliament, but when the French president appeared in the body's plenary hall in Strasbourg last Tuesday, it already seemed as though he was in control. Macron shook hands with Federica Mogherini, the European Union's chief diplomat, and Jean-Claude Juncker, the enthusiastic European Commission president while a number of parliamentarians gave him a standing ovation. Others, meanwhile, hid behind signs castigating the French president for participating in the missile attacks in Syria. Macron stepped up to the lectern, where his speech, laid there by an aide, was already waiting.
Macron seemed to breathe new life and courage into the Continent after Brexit and the string of strong right-wing populist election showings. And in his Tuesday speech, he left no doubt about what is at stake. "Fascination with illiberalism is growing by the day," he warned. "The answer must not be authoritarian democracy but the authority of democracy."
Macron's focus was astonishing in its breadth as he cited philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville, who wrote the grand narrative of American democracy. Meanwhile, at almost exactly the same moment, the German chancellor was having to seek approval for her vastly more modest policy proposals.
Specifically, it was Ralph Brinkhaus and Katja Leikert, two deputy parliamentary group leaders, who were reciting their concerns on Tuesday with Macron's EU reform plans. Merkel did what she could to counter them, invoking in her comments to conservative parliamentarians gathered in Berlin everything from the 1555 Peace of Augsburg to the crises of the present, but she was unable to generate much in the way of enthusiasm. In the end, she was so accommodating to her party's parliamentary group that it appeared that it was not Merkel herself who is determining the guidelines of Germany's EU policies, but rather a handful of parliamentarians Macron has probably never heard of.
Has the 'Queen of Europe' Been Dethroned?
Not even five years have passed since the spate of essays and opinion pieces about Germany's hegemonic power over the Continent. The cold reality, the Economist wrote, is that "Germany is the power in Europe that counts the most. Top brass in Brussels, or Paris, can talk as much as they like. But until Ms. Merkel agrees, nothing happens." The danger, it added, is not that Germany will grow too strong, but that it could refuse to take on the leadership role.
And today? The world has become a dangerous place, with a leader in the Kremlin dreaming of former Soviet power and an American president who doesn't appear to be able to tell the difference between politics and a video game ("missiles, nice and smart"). The U.S. missile strike in Syria a week ago Saturday was not nearly as explosive as it could have been -- but that certainly was no thanks to Merkel, who stood on the sidelines as the major powers decided what course of action the West would take.
That's just one example of how Germany is once again finding itself in the role of onlooker in international politics. The German government had to fight for a seat at the anti-Assad summit taking place in Brussels on Tuesday. When it came to sanctions against Russia in response to the poisoning of Russian double-agent Sergei Skripal, Germany had no say. And in the EU, Macron is now in the driver's seat.
It's more than just symbolic that the French president is to be welcomed in Washington today with great pomp and circumstance while Merkel is only making a brief "working visit" to the White House on Friday, just before the weekend.
Germany has fallen into the background again, and this isn't solely the result of Merkel's tortuously protracted attempts to form a government following elections last September. That is the spin the Chancellery is now giving it. But in recent years, Merkel has frittered away much of her political capital -- particularly with refugee policies that were an affront to almost all of Germany's allies. Merkel has also seen her power in Berlin diminished significantly. For years, Horst Seehofer -- who heads the Christian Social Union (CSU), the Bavarian sister party to Merkel's CDU -- gave the chancellor a free hand in foreign policy matters. But he now says there is no way he would have gone along with a military strike against Syria. "I would have used my veto," he says.
The country is currently experiencing a strange form of regression. During the Ukraine crisis, it was Merkel and not the United States who seized the initiative. A short time earlier, at the beginning of 2014, German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen said at the Munich Security Conference that sitting and waiting was no longer an option. "If we have means, if we have capabilities," she said, then "we have the obligation and we have the responsibility to engage."
Trump had barely been elected in November 2016 before the New York Times began describing Merkel as essentially the last defender of the liberal West. The chancellor has consistently rejected such notions, and to a certain extent she has been right to do so. How, after all, is a country that is required to have long debates in parliament before it can deploy a single soldier going to defend the West?
At the same time, the chancellor also felt thoroughly flattered. Merkel had long hesitated in announcing whether she would run for a fourth term, but she decided to do so just a short time after Trump's election, a decision that was linked to a feeling that her leadership was badly needed in a world that was coming unhinged. And then, in the middle of her campaign, she made her famous statement that made it sound as though Merkel was abandoning the postwar order. Europe, she said, had to be prepared to "take its fate into its own hands."
Europe's New Leader: Macron
Those words could have marked a turning point in European history, but it appears that the only person who took them seriously was Emmanuel Macron, who was sworn in as the president of France on May 14, 2017. After just under a year in power, he has established France as the leading nation in Europe and it is now he who is the defender of freedom and democracy.
You don't have to agree with Macron on every point. There are good reasons to refuse to join a military strike led by a man who might one day confuse his mobile phone display with the proverbial nuclear button. And it serves no one if a future European Monetary Fund eases the pressure on Southern European debtor countries to reform.
And yet the French president still stands out pleasingly from the chancellor as someone who not only has the courage to form ideas, but also the courage to fight for those ideas in the face of opposition.
When Macron speaks about Europe, he does so out of commitment, conveying energy and passion. He dances about like a boxer in the ring and there are six full glasses of water on the lectern. During the course of the evening, he will drink five and half of them.
On Tuesday night, Macron spent close to two hours speaking to around 300 people about Europe in the town of Épinal on the edge of the Vosges Mountains. It was his first "citizens' consultation" on the future of the EU. Macron would like to see to it that similar events are held all across Europe, including in Germany.
Macron didn't pick the easiest place to launch the initiative. As in many places in France, the major factories are dying out in Épinal, resistance to the EU is a tradition and the town's former mayor was one of the biggest opponents of the Maastricht Treaty that laid the foundations for the common currency. In other words, Épinal is not a place where Macron can expect to have an easy ride. Which is precisely why he came here.
Before the introduction of the euro, a Picon, a popular aperitif, only cost "five Francs at the counter," an angry older man said. "Now it costs three times that amount." A younger woman also expressed concern about growing competition from workers from neighboring countries. Members of the audience also addressed the military strike in Syria, which Macron joined. All were questions that allowed the president to reveal his vision for Europe. There have been no wars in 70 years in Europe thanks to the EU, he said. "Think about that when you have your next Picon!"
"I have no red lines -- only horizons," Macron said during a speech given at the Sorbonne seven months ago. It is an audacious sentence -- a desire to look beyond one's immediate surroundings. But there's also a bit of hubris in it, a dollop of megalomania.
Merkel, of course, senses that a shift in power is taking place. There was a dark side to her role as "the queen of Europe," as some called her. Caricatures in Greece depicted her with a Hitler mustache during the debt crisis and Merkel dolls were burned in effigy. But she was also seen as someone who could not be bypassed if something was to be achieved in Europe. These days, however, it's Macron everyone wants to talk to.
At the end of European Union summits these days, Merkel often quickly disappears into her hotel after giving a short statement. Macron, by contrast, likes to use those events as an opportunity to make longer appearances with world leaders. "The real France is back," European Commission President Juncker said, visibly pleased, after Macron's speech before the European Parliament.
When Macron visited China in January, Merkel was in the middle of negotiations to form a government coalition together with the center-left Social Democratic Party. By that point, three months had already passed since the election. "He's conducting international politics and I'm stuck here," she told a colleague at a particularly boring moment.
Macron's style is totally different from Merkel's approach. He doesn't shy away from big ideas or from showing pathos or passion. In that sense, Macron is more comparable to Barack Obama, whose rise was to a large extent the result of his powerful skills as an orator.
Words Followed by Actions
In contrast to Obama, though, Macron has so far always followed up his words with actions. In mid-February, he announced that the use of chemical weapons in Syria would cross the "red line" leading him to take retaliatory military action.
It was more than just a symbolic statement. Macron didn't just use the same formulation that Obama had used almost six years earlier, but the French president also went on to launch missiles against Assad following the presumed deployment of chemical weapons in early April in Douma.
Merkel would never come to the idea of seeking to assume America's leadership role. She's fully aware of the dilapidated state of the Bundeswehr, Germany's armed forces, and she knows that the German people don't want to become entangled in the world's conflicts. Merkel's pragmatism has always been the source of her success. It was only when she showed an apparently idealistic side during the refugee crisis that her popularity began to slip.
The German chancellor also lacks Macron's clear talent for dramaturgy. Merkel would never give a victory speech in front of a national symbol in the way that Macron did on the evening of his presidential election, when he spoke in front of the Louvre's glass pyramid, backed by the EU anthem, Beethoven's "Ode to Joy." When Merkel nearly scored an absolute parliamentary majority in the 2014 elections and supporters at CDU party headquarters began triumphantly waving paper German flags in celebration, she quickly moved to have them collected. The display was simply too ostentatious for her taste.
Merkel's rise to become the queen of Europe was by no means orchestrated -- it was a product of the logic of the euro crisis. She was the woman with the most cash, which conferred her power in Brussels. She also dealt with the crisis the same way she does with every other: with no overarching plan, but with considerable understanding for detail. Ultimately, Greece was permitted to remain in the eurozone and Europe got a bailout fund.
And whereas Merkel seeks to carefully untie Gordian knots, Marcon seeks to cut them in half. He has just created a new political force from scratch and decimated France's two traditional parties, the socialists and the conservatives -- which had for decades determined the country's destiny.
That experience has lent Macron a self-confidence possessed by few French leaders since Charles de Gaulle. If he was able to revolutionize France, then why wouldn't he be able to do the same for the EU, Europe and, yes, Western power structures?
Macron has convinced the French that their future is in Europe, and there is correspondingly great pressure now, one year before the next European Parliament elections, for him to present his first successes. And he made clear in his speech before European Parliament on Tuesday that he would achieve those successes even absent a major pact with Berlin.
- Part 1: Germany's Incredibly Shrinking Role on the World Stage
- Part 2: Macron Is Well Aware of Germany's Contraints