The Guardian view on Europe after Merkel: problems managed, not solved

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<span>Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

When Angela Merkel’s successor is identified in elections this Sunday, that person will be the first new holder of Europe’s most powerful elected office for 16 years. The mere change of leadership will be a shock for the whole continent. Germany is the EU’s foremost economic power (although France sees itself as a political equal).

That strength has generally been wielded with deference to the wider European interest. Or rather, the two interests have been conflated. A culture of atonement for the past has made Germany especially committed to the EU’s founding mission – peace and prosperity by means of cross-border integration. For the continent’s smaller members, that has sometimes felt like integration on terms dictated by Berlin, especially when it comes to budget austerity. European solidarity is the key to German foreign policy, but aversion to public debt is its sacred economic creed. That has made for uncomfortable diplomacy within the eurozone.

Tension over fiscal transfers flares whenever the conversation turns to the economic stability of the union, but the more insidious threat is the rise of illiberal nationalism, which risks making a mockery of the bloc’s foundational ideals. This is sometimes cast as a problem specific to former communist countries (Hungary and Poland being the worst offenders). But xenophobic rhetoric has encroached on the mainstream in nearly all European democracies.

With internal stresses testing solidarity, it is hard for the EU to focus outwards, although the global challenges are greater still. The affront felt in France at being bypassed in the formation of a new security pact between the US, the UK and Australia is not minor petulance. It speaks to strategic insecurity and is already reviving debates about the need for European defence autonomy. That subject also touches on historical sensitivities around German power.

It is one of the many tricky issues that Ms Merkel has avoided in her long tenure at the heart of European diplomacy. The last decade has seen the EU hit by the eurozone and the migration crises, as well as Brexit and the Trump presidency. A recent book by academics Jens Steffek and Leonie Holthaus, entitled Prussians, Nazis and Peaceniks, points to Germany’s dilemma of being pushed into an “international leadership role” while not actively seeking one.

To be trusted within the EU, Berlin needs to deal with the mismatch between domestic and international expectations of German foreign policy. So far, little has been done to ease the tension between an inward-looking electorate and Germany’s increasing power. Evasion of hard choices might prove to be Ms Merkel’s defining legacy. It is not always a flaw. The EU has defied many forecasts of failure. The resilience of the project is routinely underestimated by its critics, usually because they misdiagnose incremental progress as stasis or decline. The distinction can be hard to discern, and Ms Merkel has walked the boundary with skill.

Her reputation as a methodical pragmatist should be understood in the context of the convictions to which that pragmatism has been applied. In the EU, that has sometimes meant a zeal in maintaining institutional stability (and fiscal conservatism) at the expense of flexibility and adaptation to circumstance. If 27 countries want to move as one, they cannot do it quickly. But to stop moving altogether risks being overtaken by global events. The climate emergency demands radical and agile economic changes that do not come naturally to the EU.

The Merkel era, however, has been a triumph of neutralising crises, without quite resolving them. Given the scale of those challenges, deferral amounts to accomplishment, but it is an ambiguous legacy that bequeaths plenty of problems to a successor and leaves existential questions about Europe’s future unanswered.

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