The EU Chancellor

Angela Merkel carries her governing style to the European level

01/03/2011 | von Andreas Rinke

Kategorie: European Union, German Foreign Policy, Europe, Germany, Western Europe

The euro-saving months of 2010 revealed one thing: Angela Merkel has become a sort of European Chancellor. In the wider European Union some might grumble about Germany’s conditions for its euro aid, but in fact Merkel has been granted a kind of “agenda setting authority” within the circle of 27 state and government leaders.

After dinner on the first day of the EU Summit in December, Angela Merkel carried a particular accessory with her to face German journalists: her purse. She spent a moment rummaging around in it and then placed it next to her chair, in full view. Whether by accident or not, the chancellor’s purse was a perfect conclusion to this year of unusual crisis for the European Union, evoking former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s hand-bag-slamming, “I want my money back!” EU budget battles. Angela Merkel had already been dubbed the “Iron Lady of Europe” by some media outlets after she attached strict conditions to Germany’s assistance to indebted euro countries. As she put away her purse at this moment, she knew that she would receive everything she wanted from her EU partners, though this had looked impossible months earlier: a permanent euro crisis mechanism starting in 2013, which, although vague, would include private investors; a tightened growth and stability pact; and a change to the EU treaty.

In the days leading up to the EU Summit, Merkel was labeled an isolationist by most media outlets. Acrimonious discussions in the European Union and within Germany centered around whether the chancellor’s delaying tactics and stubbornness compromised Germany’s position in Europe. Regardless of whether one thinks that the euro rescue efforts were adequate and correct—a structural question of the European Union was clarified in 2010: Despite, or perhaps because of the Union’s expansion to 27 members, Germany, with the largest national economy, has definitively emerged as the central player in the Union. To put it bluntly: Merkel is, with all of her advantages and disadvantages, no longer just Germany’s chancellor, but the European Union’s as well.

It is hardly remarkable that the emergence of a de facto German EU chancellorship went unnoticed during the turbulent stages leading to the rescue of first Greece, then the entire eurozone, and finally the formulation of a permanent crisis mechanism starting in 2013.

Media outlets in the 27 EU states continue to be subject to the old mechanisms of nationally-dominated European news coverage, tallying up “winners” and “losers” in the conflict of interests between recipient and donor countries. The often slow-creeping structural changes within the European Union tend to be noticed only after time has faded the polemics and national undertones of daily news coverage.

Even the chancellor contributed to the lack of attention her EU ascendancy garnered. The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung characterized Merkel as having a “detached coolness” during the Bundestag debate about the euro ahead of the December EU Summit. The CDU leader speaks of Europe more technocratically and with less impassioned vision than her role model Helmut Kohl or even current finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble. This worked to remove emotion from the concrete decision-making process, but her critics saw it as obstructing her view of a grand vision for the Union.

This is not surprising. In contrast to Helmut Kohl, the East German Merkel, like her predecessor Gerhard Schröder, lacks personal experience of World War II destruction and thus a more emotional understanding for the importance, say, of coordinating with partners like France. Merkel’s impulse for engagement in European politics is not personal. As with all current EU government heads, the chancellor is primarily driven by financial markets and the consequences of the economic crisis. As opposed to Kohl, whose steps towards integration were always justified by looking to the past, especially the Second World War, Merkel focuses considerably more on the future.

But Merkel’s role in European politics has shown that different impulses can indeed lead to similar outcomes. One might accuse Merkel of a lack of European empathy, but deeper insight into the challenges of the future and outside pressure have convinced her of the need for a serious new push toward integration. It was Merkel, after all, who discussed steps toward deeper integration and European harmony with French President Nicolas Sarkozy in Deauville in late 2010.

The widely-voiced criticism that Germany is turning away from Europe because it is prioritizing national goals and reluctant to contribute more money is, therefore, false. It also overlooks the fact that no one was expecting more integration this year. All of the EU governments began 2010 believing that after the hard-fought Lisbon Treaty compromise, no further integration steps would or should be pursued for many years.

The Coalitionist

If one were to roughly divide 2010 into three parts—the Greek rescue package, the temporary euro crisis mechanism, and the forward-looking debate about tightening the stability and growth pacts as well as a permanent euro emergency buffer starting in 2013—it would confirm the thesis that Merkel not only occupies the roll of EU chancellor, but that she has transferred her governing style from the national to the European stage.

This might initially sound absurd since all 27 EU government heads have their own electoral legitimacy and are therefore substantially more independent than any federal minister. But this independence is purely theoretical: During the euro crisis, every summit participant knew that no EU country could be saved if Germany, with its economic and financial prowess and solid reputation in the financial markets, was not on board. In any case, it is about time to slowly start thinking of the European Union as more than just a club with 27 members. Merkel already revealed how close her national and European policies are in February 2010, when she broke a German taboo by saying that the European Council—not necessarily just the euro group—should henceforth function as an “economic government.”

The question is whether it might not be more appropriate to think of the European Union as a “government”—along German lines, rather than the French presidential model. The “government” comparison would help to make the European Union more understandable in its uniqueness and functionality.

Policies can only be made in this European “economic government” when coalitions are formed. And the roll that has fallen to Merkel resembles her roll in the federal cabinet and as coalition head. In her cabinet she has agenda setting power and the right to a veto—but without her own loyal following she cannot achieve anything because of coalition constraints and the department heads’ strong control over their own ministries.  Merkel  can set a course for reform in a particular department, if she is convinced of its necessity. But the concrete design of such projects is out of her control. Furthermore, she has to pay a price in exchange for her coalition partners pushing through certain items. As a result, she sometimes waits to set a course until she knows what her coalition partners really demand.

Her actions during the three phases of the euro rescue show some parallels. She began by steadfastly refusing an unconditional bailout of Greece—mindful of Germany’s Constitutional Court, which forbid the collectivization of debt. Merkel needed the time to forge coalitions with other EU partners and to compensate for the minority status of eurozone states with a strong culture of saving. The results resembled  coalition negotiations: the rescue package was clearly a compromise arrangement. The euro states that were negatively affected can count on the solidarity of the stronger partners—but only according to conditions set by the stronger partners. In the process, Germany accepted the fact that solidarity between euro states may require it to step in with billions in guarantees for Greece or Ireland in an emergency. Overall, the deal corresponds to most compromises, including those at the national level, where outcomes are initially criticized by all sides because no group received everything they had hoped for at the -outset.

Who Is Who in the EU Government?

It is both interesting and provocative to assign other players a roll in this picture of an “EU government.” The individual state and government leaders could be comparable to a squad of ministers, an EU summit comparable to a lower parliament or state assembly such as the Bundesrat. The comparison even fits in terms of content, since the representatives of the member states, which have differing economic structures, often represent their own particular interests—just as the finance or economic ministers in a government would. In this scenario, the roll of vice chancellor certainly falls to French President Sarkozy, who has the leeway to take the initiative in a policy debate but could be roped in by the chancellor, Merkel, should they disagree. In this context, the meeting in Deauville was like a “mini coalition committee,” where the leaders ironed out a coalition agreement between the high-debt and high-savings factions.

In this model, EU Council president Herman Van Rompuy acted similarly to the Head of the Chancellery. A Chancellery chief of staff represents the interests of the dominant political groups and has to search for an agreement between the different camps—while also facing the risk that the head of government and her deputy could quickly overrule him, as happened to Van Rompuy in Deauville. Admittedly, it is difficult to assign a place to the President of the EU Commission, José Manuel Barroso, in light of the never-ending power struggle between the different EU institutions.

The role and status of national ministry heads in this model remains an open question. In fact, they are increasingly left to focus on “regional” issues in their countries, while the heads of state and government take responsibility for the more  EU relevant issues.

The Lisbon Treaty strongly reduced the relevance of the 27 national foreign ministers, since they will now no longer take part in EU summits. In the meantime, the “bosses” claim the authority to tackle any issues that become relevant to the EU level. Merkel is no exception to the trend. One example of this is the Special Summit on Energy between state and government heads (rather than environment ministers) on February 4. Not surprisingly, this power takeover by state leaders also changes the makeup of policy discussions at the national level: the “EU chancellor” Merkel did not even invite the appropriate economic and environment ministers to an information meeting with the energy sector that was held at the Chancellery.


ANDREAS RINKE is a journalist based in Berlin.



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