'Patience!' Merkel coalition woes not the blow to EU some fear (or crave)

Arne Dedert, dpa, AFP | French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel laugh prior to the opening of the Frankfurt Book Fair on October 10, 2017.

As coalition talks collapsed in Germany this week, delaying or even imperilling Angela Merkel’s fourth term as chancellor, observers across Europe have been atwitter about the possible knock-on effects.


Emmanuel Macron, France’s Europhile president, has been actively laying the groundwork for European Union reform, making a 100-minute speech expounding on his vision in September, just days after Merkel’s re-election. The French leader has scored some victories in his early forays on Europe – getting his way on posted worker rules and, just Monday evening, seeing Paris win the right to host the European Banking Authority after it moves out of London. But the EU overhaul Macron has in mind may be seriously compromised without Germany’s veteran chancellor along for the ride.

Meanwhile in Britain, some Brexiters seem convinced – mistakenly, say analysts – that Merkel’s travails can only make their job easier as they race the clock to seal a deal and leave the EU.

For a closer look, FRANCE 24 spoke with Isabelle Bourgeois, a research fellow at the Information and Research Centre on Contemporary Germany (CIRAC) at the University of Cergy-Pontoise, northeast of Paris.

FRANCE 24: Does Macron’s ambitious speech on Europe, just after elections in Germany in September, now look premature, given the collapse of Merkel’s coalition talks?

Isabelle Bourgeois: It is true that it was a bit quick. It would have been more cunning to wait until a [German] government had been put together. But it was also urgent in terms of French domestic politics to put the European theme back at the top of the agenda. Because France has been lagging a lot in that respect and was literally in denial of Europe for too many years. So it was urgent. Germany had been waiting for France to react for 30 years.

Macron’s speech was remarkable, suggesting avenues, providing a vision for debate. It was an excellent basis for discussion. But the debate is open and that’s the important part.

Concretely, what does political deadlock in Germany mean for Macron’s ambitions for Europe?

Nothing. Simply put, the debate will start just a little bit later. That’s all. An even more important shock for Europe was France’s “No” result in the 2005 referendum on a European constitution. Back then, there was a stoppage, a bit of paralysis, in progress on Europe. Now, for once, it is Germany that must resolve its own issues. All that will work itself out. As far as timing is concerned, it isn’t too worrisome…. European policy doesn’t advance at the speed of polling. It’s not day-to-day. Policy, approaches, lines are drawn long in advance and then the negotiation process is very long.

But does it still hold that Macron cannot move forward on Europe until Germany’s new coalition is operational?

Hold on. Germany made proposals in 1994, in 1999. France never responded. Never. Today, it is France making the proposals. Germany will respond. It has promised to do so. A little patience!

Germany’s Free Democrats (FDP), who capsized Merkel’s coalition talks this week, weren’t very enthusiastic about some of Macron’s stances on Europe, notably drawing a red line at further integration for the Eurozone. Might the FDP quitting the coalition talks be a blessing for Macron?

At first glance, yes, from the French point of view. But I would be more prudent because nothing is sorted. The cards are still being reshuffled from top to bottom. We could easily imagine that negotiations for a Jamaica coalition finally succeed, or that they fail and a grand coalition returns. No one knows, for now. So it’s up to the parties to look for compromises, common ground. And then to develop a vision of the future for Germany, which hadn’t been the case so far because this was an extended election campaign. Failure was beneficial because it sets everything straight. And now heads need to cool – and the media needs to cool down, too, because they got everybody riled up – and once things calm down, they can get back to the table and talk. [...] Like Mitterrand used to say in France, let time take its course.

On Monday night, Paris won the right to headquarter the European Banking Authority after Brexit – perhaps a surprise for Frankfurt, which was seen as a frontrunner.

It’s understandable since Frankfurt has the European Central Bank’s headquarters and it makes sense that the authority not be right next door.

But while the timing may have been a coincidence, is it symbolic of changing fortunes for France and Germany, a win for one, a loss for the other?

No, that phrase -- a win for France, a loss for Germany -- that is thinking from another age. Europe should precisely no longer be that. There is competition, certainly, one is happy or unhappy, that is normal. But one cannot say win-lose. Europe is not a football match. And Europe isn’t a group of nations at war economically. It is a community. The day that spirit sinks in very clearly in France, Europe will advance. France lags behind Germany on that score. Everyone must preserve their interests, that’s normal; and defend them, absolutely. But the other state is not the enemy. We still have a bit of a tendency in France to see Europe as an ensemble of enemies. Schadenfreude is highly developed in France and it is misplaced because it no longer corresponds to the state of the EU.

If Macron and the French need only be patient and keep cool while Germany resolves its coalition trouble, what about Theresa May?

That is more delicate, indeed, because [Brexit] is a case that is truly urgent. But Germany still does have a government. It is a caretaker government, sure, but there are still negotiators; there are the European lawmakers, there are other negotiators who will be present in the next government. So continuity can still be ensured…. The technical teams exist and can still work a bit. They cannot take final, operational decisions, but they can advance the case in terms of thinking.

Does the Macron-Merkel tandem still have its best days ahead of it?

For the moment, Macron-Merkel is slightly in parentheses. They have a good basis for understanding. In the meantime, Macron could use his time intelligently by speeding up reforms at home and [thereby] increasing Germany's confidence in France. Things would go even more smoothly afterwards.

All this optimism.

What I mean to say is, what is happening in Germany isn’t tragic. It is unprecedented, yes. It is new. But it isn’t tragic. And the Germans have a philosophy: A “crisis” – let’s call it a crisis in inverted commas because it isn’t a big one – is always an opportunity to bounce back, to create something new. It is always positive. That’s the German approach…. That was the case during the subprime crisis, with its terrible economic repercussions for Germany; GDP that fell five percent. It was a grave economic crisis, but they all said to themselves, no, it’s an opportunity to do better than before, to do new things.

The German reunification story is a little like that, too.

Exactly. Taking up the challenge. Same thing with the refugee crisis, the influx of a million refugees.

And Europe itself?

And Europe, obviously. That approach provides optimism for the next steps, but one needs patience. And Monsieur Macron could use his time usefully to advance, advance, advance on reforms in France. That is the guarantee of confidence he will give the EU. Because his program, his vision, is lovely, but his vision is only credible if France reforms itself and becomes competitive again. And decreases its debt, obviously.

So, patience there, too. The work is enormous. Herculean work for Macron to take on. So, patience. For Germany and for France. Europe won’t collapse.

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