Angela Merkel does not leave the international press indifferent. To globalists she is the new leader of the free world, while to nationalists she is a traitor to the European people. However, both sides could agree that she is one of the greatest European leaders of the twenty-first century, whether they want to disapprove of or support the European Union (EU). Both sides fail to see that in reality, Merkel is not a great European, but a great pragmatist.
Merkel does not want to see the end of the EU. She actively fought for its survival during the Eurozone crisis and ran on unambiguous pro-EU platforms. She is a pragmatist in that she helps the Union when it serves her interests and actively opposes it when it threatens them. In the words of nineteenth-century British Prime Minister Lord Palmerston, “There are no eternal allies, nor perpetual enemies, just permanent interests.”
In the rare instances that the EU actually pushed to increase its power in response to the crises of the past decade, Merkel fought back. When the European Central Bank (ECB) tried to implement governmental bond purchases as an effort to contain the mounting debt crisis in Europe, Germany opposed it. When the ECB lowered its interest rate to encourage investment in a continent rapidly losing its appeal, Germany fought against it. When the rest of Europe called for Germany to cut down its unhealthy commercial surpluses, Germany ignored it.
None of this should surprise us. Germany is actually one of the few European countries that benefits from the current European status quo. Germany’s potent influence in the EU strengthens its international position, particularly in terms of trade. The country’s drastic labor reforms in the early 2000s gave them a competitive edge over their European neighbors who could no longer adjust their competitiveness by lowering the value of their currencies. Germany now tops Europe in economic performance and is acutely aware that any further European interaction with poorer European neighbors will be largely paid for by German taxpayers.Germany also knows that further European disintegration would weaken the very tool of Germany’s wealth. For these reasons, Merkel supports the status quo.
France elected a fresh-faced, pro-EU president, Emmanuel Macron, in May 2017. He now leads a country that is being considerably weakened by this status quo. He wants fiscal convergence and a Eurozone budget, among other reforms. These are two measures that come with a sizeable cost for German taxpayers. Unfortunately for him, Merkel seems to be heading progressively towards a coalition with the Greens and the hard-nosed Free Democratic Party (FDP) liberals who will oppose any further integration for the reasons mentioned above. European reform may have to wait, as it has for the past 12 years of Merkel’s reign.
Yet all hope for reform is not lost. Just as the monarchs of old regimes built pyramids, palaces, and castles, Merkel may want to leave her final term with a stronger legacy than the no-nonsense, balance-the-books image she acquired. This legacy could be a stronger union, especially if she feels it serves Germany’s interests.
François Valentin is a senior in the SFS majoring in international politics. His column, Political Compass, examines European politics through the lens of key political actors by going beyond sensational media coverage to focus on concrete policies and ideologies of European politicians.