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  1. International Politics
11 August 2022

In the grip of overlapping crises, Europe faces a leadership vacuum

Emmanuel Macron is a lame duck, Mario Draghi is leaving office and Olaf Scholz is hesitant. Who will step up in their place?

By Mujtaba Rahman

The EU is confronted with genuine leaderlessness, just as it faces a potentially explosive series of interlocking military, diplomatic, energy and economic crises.

Advances in the EU have traditionally been forged at times of crisis, but a leader or group of leaders has always been available in the past to chivvy disparate interests and views towards consensus.

It is difficult to see who will have the clout or credibility to perform that role this year and next, just as the acute domestic consequences of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – accelerating inflation, shortages of energy and some foodstuffs, possible rationing, even recession – really begin to bite.

The idea that Germany’s size and economic strength make it the EU’s default power has never sat comfortably with Berlin, which has not been keen to take on a leadership role in the EU – if leadership means identifying, promoting and selling solutions in the face of opposition from other EU countries. The core of “Merkelism” was something different: “leading from the centre” – for the most part, a more passive and cautious approach focused on building consensus around a majority view, rather than boldness and creativity in responding to new challenges.

Olaf Scholz, the new German chancellor, is even more “Merkelian” than Angela Merkel was herself. He does not have the political clout Merkel enjoyed, nor the ambition or interest to shape the EU. But Germany’s leadership problems today go beyond the character of its chancellor; they are structural, and relate to Germany’s new position in the EU rather than personality politics.

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Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is the first European crisis in which Germany is the “demandeur” rather than the protector of the EU. In the eurozone crisis from 2009 onwards, Berlin’s financial firepower was the EU’s decisive asset; in the 2015 migration crisis it was Germany’s willingness to take on the bulk of Syrian refugees. When Russia first invaded Ukraine in 2014, it was Merkel’s skilful diplomacy, backed up by Germany’s willingness to countenance sanctions, that drove the EU’s response.

Today’s crises are different. Because of its energy dependence on Russia, Germany now needs to rely on the “solidarity” of its EU partners. While Germany could offer more military support to Ukraine, senior German officials remain sceptical about whether a “Ukrainian win” can be achieved and the level of escalation it would entail. Scholz himself has said that Germany will never push ahead of other Nato countries when it comes to military aid and that a “special” role for Germany would be a “mistake”.

This has contributed to Germany’s loss of moral superiority – its asset in previous crises. In 2009, Germany’s austerity policy was presented as a moral virtue. But the war in Ukraine has marked the collapse of Berlin’s long-standing policy towards Russia, weakening its legitimacy and its ability to offer solutions or, indeed, leadership.

[See also: Shadows of the First World War hang over Germany’s ambiguous response]

But Europe’s problems are bigger than Germany. With the Ukrainian war approaching its seventh month and the energy crisis growing, France also heads into its summer break in a state of political uncertainty and fragility.

Emmanuel Macron would be an obvious candidate to fill the EU’s leadership vacuum. But on 19 June, he became the first French president for 30 years to have no parliamentary majority (after becoming, on 24 April, the first French head of state in two decades to be re-elected as president).

Macron now faces a political landscape split equally and poisonously three ways between the radical left, consensual centre and the far right. The new frontier between the centre and the nationalist-populist right passes through the heart of the centre-right Républicains. While it’s possible that it will split along that fault line in the months ahead, even that would not necessarily give Macron enough reinforcements for a stable majority in the National Assembly.

The French president will therefore be much more distracted by drama at home: he faces an angry and hostile parliament that will fight tooth and nail against his government’s programme, especially controversial economic and social reforms he intends to pass when parliament returns in October. These policies will also be contested “on the street” by trade union marches and strikes, starting in September. These were always inevitable; in the new political landscape, they are likely to become even more intense and self-righteous.

So Macron faces a choice: between dissolving parliament or accepting he will have to drift through the five years of his second term as a lame-duck president. Given his ambitions, it’s becoming increasingly likely he will call a new parliamentary election in the first half of next year, a further risk that will also distract from his ability to lead the EU. 

But it’s not only Macron’s domestic troubles that will contribute to Europe’s leadership deficit. Rightly or wrongly, the perception that he is soft on Russia has undermined him and his “strategic autonomy” agenda – Macron’s belief that the EU needs to grow a strategic brain and military muscle to match its global importance – with Poland and the Baltic and Nordic member states who consider themselves party to the conflict with Ukraine. This view has persisted, even as Macron has stated in recent interviews and broadcasts that the Ukraine conflict will endure for many months and that France will continue to support Ukraine with military, financial and humanitarian aid until “victory” has been achieved on terms acceptable to Kyiv.

Early elections in Italy on 25 September also create political instability in one of the EU’s larger member states, not least because it’s likely the next government will be a far-right coalition led by the populist Fratelli d’Italia, with the Lega and centre-right Forza Italia.

As prime minister, Mario Draghi never exercised the leadership he showed at the European Central Bank. At best, he was a guarantor of stability. But with his departure, Italy is no longer likely to make even a minimally positive contribution to EU decision-making or consensus-building.

Instead, Rome will again become a source of concern, as the new government will be less willing to implement economic reforms in exchange for its share of the EU’s pandemic recovery instrument – a fund whose next disbursement to Italy will be worth €19bn, or around 1 per cent of the country’s GDP. A far-right Eurosceptic government will eventually comply with EU mandated reforms, but the learning curve could be steep, and the process painful.

It is a truism that the EU has no single “leader”. It is equally true that small and medium-sized member states rightly resent the suggestion that they are the “other ranks” while Germany, France and Italy provide the “officer class”.

But the small and medium states are themselves divided between north and south, east and west. Now could be their moment. But which of them will have the courage or credibility to lead?

[See also: The war in Europe should have strengthened Europe’s common voice. Why hasn’t it?]

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