EXCEPTIONS PROVE who rules. In the summer of 2015 Angela Merkel suspended the EU’s asylum rules and allowed 1m people into Germany, in the most controversial decision of her tenure. Rather than being returned to their first port of entry in southern Europe, Syrians arriving in Germany were given a new life in Europe’s most prosperous country. Skip forward to December 2021 and asylum rules are being suspended again. This time the aim is to keep people out. Those crossing from Belarus into the EU now face up to four months in a detention centre while their application is processed. Others will not make it even that far. Polish border guards are pushing them back into Belarus, sometimes roughly. Willkommenskultur has been shown the door.
When it comes to asylum policy in the EU, it is as if Mrs Merkel’s “Wir schaffen das” (“We can manage this”) had never been spoken. Fences are springing up. Proposals to share the burden of asylum-seekers more evenly have been stuck for five years. It is far from an isolated case: the most significant policies Mrs Merkel pursued at a European level are being undone. The German chancellor left the European stage only on December 8th, when Olaf Scholz’s coalition of Social Democrats, liberals and Greens officially took power. Yet the mark left by this century’s foremost EU politician is already fading.
Part of this is natural. Even in Germany, a land where consensus is king, a change of government leads to a change of policy. Take its position on central Europe. As chancellor, Mrs Merkel coddled Poland and Hungary as they trampled democratic norms. Mrs Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (and the Christian Social Union, its Bavarian sibling) hindered measures to curb Hungary and Poland’s governments, such as cutting EU funds or even just isolating them politically. In Mrs Merkel’s mind, the risk of division trumped fears about democracy.
Under the new coalition, a stricter line will emerge. The coalition agreement contained tough provisions on respecting the rule of law. No German government can be seen to throw its weight around on Polish affairs, for fairly obvious reasons. Yet it can stop standing in the way of others, as Mrs Merkel did.
It was a similar story when it came to reforming the EU. Whenever Emmanuel Macron pushed the accelerator of the Franco-German engine, Mrs Merkel would hit the clutch; the car would make a lot of noise, but not go anywhere. In a club of 27, staying still is usually the easiest compromise. It means no one is run over. But it was a particularly enticing option for Germany. After all, from a German perspective, the EU works rather well. It provides Germany with a currency that keeps exports cheap and a large market in which to sell them. Why change the status quo if it works?
When Mrs Merkel lifted her foot from the clutch, things did happen. A €750bn ($845bn) fund to help EU countries recover from covid-19, paid for with common debt, was agreed on her watch. The former chancellor painted it as a pragmatic step in the extreme circumstances of the pandemic. Mr Scholz was comfortable labelling it as something more ambitious, calling potential EU-level taxes to pay for it a “Hamiltonian moment” in the vein of the American Founding Father. Making the fund a permanent fixture induces nausea both in the CDU/CSU and in parts of the coalition. Until recently, Germany could rely on a host of allies who agreed. Now those who would be keen on a repeat, or even making it permanent, are ascendant. If a tool has been used once, it can be used again.
Continental political tides are moving against Mrs Merkel’s worldview. Nuclear power, which Mrs Merkel scrapped in Germany, is enjoying a renaissance. Eastern Europe and France are falling back in love with reliable, low-carbon electricity from nuclear plants. (Germany is fighting a rearguard action to stop the commission acknowledging that nuclear power is green.) Mrs Merkel once sat atop a cabal of centre-right leaders who set the direction of the club. At the start of the previous decade, the leader of practically every big EU country hailed from the centre-right. Now not one does. Kyriakos Mitsotakis, the prime minister of Greece (population: 11m), is the most prominent centre-right leader.
A looser line on fiscal rules is emerging across the EU. Under Mrs Merkel, the German view on spending (bad) and saving (good) was foisted on a continent. As finance minister, the centre-left Mr Scholz took pains to play up the similarities between himself and Wolfgang Schäuble, his hardline CDU predecessor. Usually, passports matter more than politics when it comes to EU finance ministers. This time Christian Lindner, the new liberal finance minister, has done his best to avoid being painted as a hardliner. Under Chancellor Scholz, fiscal policy seems to be shuffling from one amenable to Germany to one more forgiving of southern Europe.
Gone, but…also forgotten
Mrs Merkel was the strongest leader on the European stage because others were weak. Whereas Helmut Kohl had François Mitterrand and Charles de Gaulle had Konrad Adenauer, Mrs Merkel generally stood alone. Moments when political clout combined with competence, such as the rise of Mr Macron in France and Mario Draghi’s elevation to prime minister in Italy, are brief. Both could be gone next year. If Germany appears to dominate EU politics, it is as much down to the disorganisation of other governments as Teutonic strength.
In a sense, Mrs Merkel’s erasure is cruel. Alongside Mr Draghi, she has the best claim of any leader to have kept the EU going. A less patient one might easily have ended up pushing Greece out of the eurozone; a more dogmatic one could have overseen the currency’s collapse. She helped the club survive some difficult times, yet she did not shape it. The memory of Mrs Merkel’s career will vanish like footprints in the snow. She kept the club together, yet barely left a mark. ■
Read more from Charlemagne, our columnist on European politics:
Why bullshit rules in Brussels (Dec 4th)
A new treaty between France and Italy upends EU politics (Nov 27th 2021)
Last of the commies (Nov 20th 2021)
This article appeared in the Europe section of the print edition under the headline “The invisible European”