Campaigning in the spring of 2017, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany declared at a packed beer hall in Bavaria that it was time for Europe to “take its destiny into its own hands.” In the face of Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, Hungary’s slide into illiberalism and an American president who viewed the European Union with disdain, Europe, she argued, needed a leader who could push forward reform and push back against its detractors. Ms. Merkel vowed that she was ready to be that leader.
Unfortunately, in the 18 months since, Ms. Merkel has failed to fulfill that pledge. The European Union’s promise to form an “ever closer union” seems more like an empty slogan than a strategy these days. But further integration is necessary. With Europe besieged by illiberal forces inside (Hungary) and from outside (Vladimir Putin’s Russia), and voters electing anti-European Union populists, leaders across the Continent need to demonstrate that they are confident about Europe’s shared future. Ms. Merkel clearly understands this — but she isn’t helping Europe to do anything about it.
Ms. Merkel’s troubles started with the September 2017 election, when her party, the center-right Christian Democrats, and the center-left Social Democrats lost a stunningly large number of voters to the far-right Alternative for Germany. The message was clear: Enthusiasm for Ms. Merkel was waning. It then took the parties more than four months to form a government. Once a coalition was finally established in March, the hope among many pro-European policymakers was that Ms. Merkel would find her footing and return to the European agenda that she had highlighted during the campaign.
Members of her own team have made that difficult. Her interior minister, Horst Seehofer, the head of the Christian Social Union, nearly brought down the entire government last summer when he threatened to resign over Ms. Merkel’s relatively open immigration policies. That crisis was averted, but Mr. Seehofer continues to contradict and challenge the chancellor. And he isn’t the only one. Last month, Ms. Merkel’s own party ousted Volker Kauder, one of her closest allies in the Bundestag, the lower house of Parliament. “The Merkel era is officially over,” a journalist friend of mine texted me when the news broke.
But blaming domestic politics for Ms. Merkel’s failure to push for further European integration misses a bigger story. Over the last year, she’s delivered several lofty speeches about the need to maintain European Union unity and protect open societies. But she’s said little about how those broad aims translate into actual policies.
Her actions stand in marked contrast to those of President Emmanuel Macron of France. Whereas Ms. Merkel lacks concrete ideas, Mr. Macron oozes them. Since he was elected last year, he has proposed dozens of ways to deepen European integration: the creation of a European Union finance minister, a joint military force, a eurozone budget, a European intelligence agency and a common asylum policy — to name just a few.
Ms. Merkel’s response to this tsunami of ideas has been lukewarm at best. The two met in France this summer and agreed in very broad terms to begin work on a eurozone budget, something Ms. Merkel once strongly opposed. Many analysts initially described it as a breakthrough — until eight other eurozone members came forward to reject the idea. For Mr. Macron, always willing to buck conventional thinking, the opposition was no reason to slow down. For Ms. Merkel, the ultimate consensus builder, it was a major roadblock.
Ms. Merkel, who is a big fan of public polling, has also no doubt noted the rising opposition to Mr. Macron’s ideas inside Germany (and, indeed, inside France, where Mr. Macron’s popularity has plummeted). Germans may have fallen madly in love with Mr. Macron during his election campaign but that love affair is fading. Today, Germans complain about a “Macron hangover” often in tandem with “Europe fatigue.” There’s a sense in Germany that Berlin will ultimately pick up the tab for any deeper European integration. Germans feel like they already paid to save Europe once, in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. They don’t want to do it again.
Understanding all this, Ms. Merkel will continue to nod politely when Mr. Macron presents innovative proposals, but she’s not going to grab his outstretched hand. That approach will certainly prevent Germany from paying more, at least in the short term, and could possibly save her political career.
But Ms. Merkel needs to ask herself about the long-term costs of failure: How much does Germany stand to lose if the European project continues to falter, if the French-German engine stalls and, when European leaders meet this month, they fail to produce fresh thinking? Deeper European integration and a demonstration of faith in Europe’s common values and its common fate are necessary to keep the populist tide at bay. If Mr. Macron loses the battle that he is waging against Viktor Orban’s illiberal Hungary, Germany will surely pay a price sooner or later.
In her final term in office, Ms. Merkel needs to summon the courage to work with Mr. Macron to lift the European Union out of its existential crisis by making good on some of the French president’s proposals. The future of Europe depends on it.
Julianne Smith is a former deputy national security adviser to Vice President Joseph Biden and now is a fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin.