By Reis Thebault, Rick Noack and Stefano Pitrelli,
Markus Schreiber AFP/Getty Images
BRUSSELS — As Germany prepares to elect its next chancellor Sunday, Europe is readying itself for a major shake-up of the unofficial hierarchy of continental leaders.
In nearly 16 years at the helm of Europe’s largest economy, Angela Merkel became the de facto representative on the world stage and the European Union’s chief power broker through countless late-night negotiations and a string of crises.
Germany will continue to wield immense influence. However, Merkel’s experience and reputation give her clout that none of her potential successors as chancellor could hope to match anytime soon. And so her departure will create an opening — for the first time in more than a decade — for other leaders to assert themselves and their vision for Europe.
A few favorites have emerged in the competition. French President Emmanuel Macron, head of the European Union’s second-biggest economy, has been jockeying for years to be the next leader of Europe. Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi, best known for saving the euro while president of the European Central Bank, also has several of the necessary credentials.
But analysts, politicians and diplomats tend to agree that no one person is capable of filling Merkel’s loafers. Instead, they say, it will probably involve a coterie of premiers — probably all of them men.
“Merkel’s exit creates a problem with leadership, a hole at the heart of Europe,” said Giovanni Orsina, director of Luiss Guido Carli University’s School of Government in Rome. “Either the new chancellor fills that void, or we need to conceive of a collective convergence.”
There will be a marked shift in the balance of power, said a senior E.U. diplomat, and other European leaders will have to step up.
“This cannot only be done by one. It has to be done by the group,” he said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive political situation.
Merkel isn’t expected to leave office immediately after the election. The results are likely to be messy, and coalition talks could go through the end of the year — or beyond. Merkel would stay on as a caretaker until a new government is formed.
And then? Whoever steps into the job — the candidates include Armin Laschet, Olaf Scholz and Annalena Baerbock — would need time to settle in, and to establish themselves, before they could expect to command the sort of attention that Merkel has in Europe and internationally.
“Any German chancellor will move into a powerful position,” said Daniela Schwarzer, executive director for Europe and Eurasia at the Open Society Foundations. “Any next German chancellor will bring some experience and bring the same weight of the country to the table, but the personal weight will not be the same.”
If Britain were still in the European Union, some of the power might shift across the English Channel. But in a post-Brexit world, London cannot expect to speak on behalf of the continent.
So, many heads are turning toward Paris.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron meet for a working dinner at the Élysée Palace in Paris on Sept. 16.
“The German elections are being seen in France as an opportunity for a reset, where whoever comes in will have less stature than Macron does and whereby France’s influence in Europe would be increased,” said Nicholas Dungan, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.
Macron has been preparing for this moment. He has repeatedly sought to emphasize his foreign policy experience, drawing a contrast with the German chancellor candidates, who spent most of their televised debates bickering about domestic politics.
Macron also has spent years outlining his vision for Europe.
In 2017, after another German election, he delivered a sweeping speech at Sorbonne University, arguing that the best response to ascendant nationalists was to acknowledge the European Union’s shortcomings — it is “too weak, too slow, too inefficient” — and then to work to make it stronger and more united.
He has reprised the theme many times. But his proposals — to integrate European defense, reform the euro zone, develop a common asylum policy and impose a new tax on U.S. tech giants — have not been enthusiastically embraced.
The French president has lately been using the chaotic Afghanistan withdrawal, and a fight with the Biden administration over a nuclear submarine deal, to reiterate a call for European “strategic independence.” Other E.U. leaders have said they stand with France in the submarine spat, and they are equally frustrated about Afghanistan. Still, the idea of an E.U. military is far from becoming a reality.
Macron’s mandate as Europe-wide leader may depend in part on how much progress he makes when France takes over the Council of the European Union’s rotating six-month presidency in January — as well as on his showing in France’s presidential election in April. His main competitor, far-right leader Marine Le Pen, has a radically different view of the European project.
“To the question who will take the mantle, you already know the answer: It will be Macron,” an E.U. diplomat said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to offer a candid assessment. “The next question is: Will he retain the mantle?”
The determining factor, the diplomat said, may be whether Macron can learn to compromise.
“Macron has the tools and the chance to, for now, fill that void,” the diplomat said. “But he will only stay there in that position if he manages to bridge the gap between him and his way of doing things, and the east and the north and everybody else. That was Merkel’s way.”
Merkel’s critics, however, sometimes hold that against her. They say she delayed decisions at the E.U. level in an effort to preserve consensus and avoid conflict — and while doing so allowed for the erosion of democratic norms in countries such as Hungary and Poland. Her approach even earned its own verb: “Merkeln,” meaning to dither or bide one’s time.
“During the Merkel era, one always tried to handle and solve things among the 27, often postponing until the very last minute the required solutions for Europe, because of Merkel’s conviction that results could only be yielded by standing together,” said Sandro Gozi, a veteran Italian politician who now represents France in the European Parliament as part of Macron’s centrist “Renaissance” list.
“I believe Macron and Draghi can make all the difference here,” Gozi said.
Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi, left, and French President Emmanuel Macron walk together before a dinner in Marseille, France, on Sept. 2.
The French president and Italian prime minister were dubbed Europe’s “new power couple” by Politico in July, amid reports of a transalpine bromance. The two men, separated in age by 30 years, are both former investment bankers and longtime E.U. boosters, and have similar goals for the 27-nation bloc, especially on fiscal policies, where both favor further financial integration.
“I believe that in this new phase, leadership could be collective,” Gozi said. “I see Macron and Draghi as protagonists of that.”
At first, their leadership of Europe would be “two-legged,” Gozi said, but it would eventually include the new German chancellor. Indeed, many observers expect Macron would need strong German partnership to execute the most ambitious of his plans. But Gozi said the result would be “less Merkel-ian” — with faster action and less caution.
Draghi has been positioning himself to take on a greater leadership role, observers say. He was a prominent voice in Europe’s reaction to the Afghanistan withdrawal, pushing for an emergency summit of the G-20, criticizing the European Union’s disorganized stance on accepting refugees, and calling President Biden during the evacuation efforts. In March, Draghi made headlines when he blocked the export of a batch of AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine doses from the European Union amid a shortage inside the bloc. And he has been talking of using nearly $235 billion in E.U. money to enact an “epochal” pandemic recovery.
But his own sway may be limited by the size and influence of his country.
“The problem across history is not only who you are but the kind of car you’re driving,” said Orsina, of Luiss Guido Carli University. “Some things you can only do if you’re Germany, otherwise it’s that much harder, regardless of the leader’s personality.”
A number of other leaders will be elbowing for a more important role, including Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte. Both share one obvious trait with their counterparts in France and Italy: They’re men.
After Merkel’s departure, council summits risk taking on the feel of an old boys’ club, said Open Society’s Schwarzer.
“There’s a certain element of having a female leader at the table — the balance will shift in that regard, as well, and that does make a difference in group dynamics,” she said. “Not only what happens in the room but the reception of politics.”
Some Europeans are sure to welcome Merkel’s egress as a chance for potential realignment and more substantive reforms to the European Union.
The Merkel era “has led to a Europe that is highly dependent on Germany and Germany’s choices,” said Rosa Balfour, the director of Carnegie Europe. “The gravity of power has shifted to Berlin, and it hasn’t been all for the good of the rest of Europe. If there’s a slight change in the balance of power, tipped in the favor of a broader pioneering group, from a European perspective there could be benefit in that.”
Critics argue, for instance, that Germany’s response to the euro-zone debt crisis and its push for austerity measures did deep and lasting damage to Greece and Italy, Balfour said.
Still, Merkel’s support remains strong across the continent — yet another indicator of how difficult she will be to replace. A recent survey by the European Council on Foreign Relations asked residents in 12 E.U. nations who they would vote for in a hypothetical election for president of Europe, Merkel or Macron.
Merkel received more support in every country, including France.
Noack reported from Paris and Pitrelli from Rome.