As German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron warmly embraced in Berlin on Monday, one widespread narrative was that, for all the Frenchman’s chutzpah, he was the much weaker partner. Here was an untested newcomer seeking favours from Europe’s most powerful leader. Here was the president of a troubled France, sitting down with a German chancellor whose national economy keeps barrelling ahead and whose personal clout seems all but invincible.
But there’s another way of looking at this encounter. Macron is not a beggar in this relationship; far from it. In fact, his astonishing rise has all but saved Merkel. It’s even pulled her, and the rest of the continent, away from the brink of political disaster: A massive far-right surge was averted. There may be more German gratitude and future cooperation than many expect.
By defeating Marine Le Pen, when Brexit and United States President Donald Trump have sowed so much doubt about the fabric of today’s liberal democracy, Macron has not just salvaged one country’s reputation, he’s prevented Merkel from going down in history as the German chancellor who presided over the European Union’s (EU) unravelling. That Merkel is the thankful one may seem like a paradox. After all, Merkel’s CDU party has just won another key regional election, bolstering her hopes of re-election in September. For years now, German officials have been accustomed to seeing France as the sick man of Europe. But Germany’s chancellor has a clear interest in shoring up European hopes that have now grown from the French election, and said as much ahead of Macron’s visit, hailing “the possibility to bring dynamism into the development of Europe”; and adding: “Germany’s future lies in Europe. Germany will only do well in the long run if Europe does well.”
Germany has always been ill-at-ease with its status as the continent’s leader. Merkel will not have forgotten the cartoons that appeared in some of Europe’s southern media during the Eurozone crisis, depicting her with a Hitler moustache or a pointy helmet — or how eastern Europeans lambasted her refugee policies. So expect Berlin to send whatever positive signals it can to consolidate Macron’s electoral prospects in the French parliamentary election in June. Plans for deeper defence cooperation will surely be mentioned. There have also already been encouraging statements from Wolfgang Schauble, the German Finance Minister — a man whose attachment to the historical dimension of the Franco-German relationship is certainly much deeper than whatever importance he attributed to Greece’s financial travails.
For all that, this requires careful calibration, for Germany won’t want to appear to be single-handedly creating the conditions for Macron’s success. Nor will the new French president seek that kind of overt assistance: His populist critics will inevitably claim Germany is “dictating”.
Merkel has a personal style that is subdued, a contrast to Macron’s flamboyance. As a general rule, she likes to shape newcomers, just as she attempted to do with Alexis Tsipras, the Greek Prime Minister, through long, face-to-face and one-to-one conversations. But from the outset, it is reassuring to her that Macron has made clear that his ambitious Eurozone reforms hinge on France first tackling structural economic transformations. Germany wouldn’t need to deliver on a common Eurozone budget until later. So there’s still time, whoever wins the German election.
Merkel was catapulted into a leadership role in Europe that she didn’t necessarily seek. And in many ways, her country still has to come to grips with the new international responsibilities a shifting geopolitical landscape has forced on it. That’s why this first Macron-Merkel meeting was never going to be just another, predictable episode of Franco-German diplomatic choreography. Nor should it be caricatured as a moment of French obsequiousness, or a chance for requests to be made by a lesser party seeking favours further down the line.
It was designed to say something much more profound. Consider this event in isolation, then look at it against the significant context that in just two weeks’ time, Trump will make his first visit as US President to Europe. That’s something to which both leaders will attach as much if not more importance than the fate of EU institutions. The Macron-Merkel get-together in Berlin was a demonstration of democratic resilience, a show of political resistance in an era of populist pressures, as well as a message to the autocrats who — as Macron said on the night of his election — are seen to represent a threat to the interests of France and to Europe. Merkel will have noted, encouragingly, that the new French president wants sanctions to be maintained against President Vladimir Putin and Russia so long as it fails to abide by ceasefire agreements in Ukraine. Remember that Francois Fillon, the one-time favourite for the French presidency, wanted to rescind those sanctions entirely. Le Pen’s fawning over Putin was of a different dimension again.
It’s still early days. It was just one meeting. But there is evidence to suggest that a new Franco-German alliance might yet reinvigorate Europe’s politics and its global or regional strategies. And because Merkel’s legacy will also be defined by what can be achieved with Macron, the power in this relationship isn’t likely to be as unbalanced as many are tempted to think. It will be a genuine partnership, clear-eyed, but recognisably of mutual benefit. Behind the warm embrace lay serious intent: Two leaders with a continent’s future at stake.
— Guardian News & Media Ltd
Natalie Nougayrede is a columnist, leader writer and foreign affairs commentator for the Guardian.