Saturday 19 January 2019

John Downing: 'Exit Angela and enter Emmanuel to take the EU's centre stage'

 

'The one to watch from here on is President Macron as Merkel’s exit puts him centre stage.' Photo: REUTERS
'The one to watch from here on is President Macron as Merkel’s exit puts him centre stage.' Photo: REUTERS
John Downing

John Downing

When Donald Trump was elected US president, liberal commentators hailed Angela Merkel as "leader of the free world". She dismissed the idea as "absurd". Now that she has begun her slow exit from politics, the appraisals of her career have begun with mixed results.

Ireland can certainly remember a decent leader who showed unwavering solidarity to this country over Brexit, the Border, and the need to preserve peace in the North.

It is reasonable to believe there will be no change on that key issue in Berlin. The policy on Brexit is set and a change of leader in Ms Merkel's party will not affect that.

Equally, the other mainstream parties have a similar view. Above all, Brexit is no longer a key political issue in Germany. In a post-Brexit EU, it is all about managing orderly exit terms for the UK.

Otherwise, the career appraisals repeatedly echo her exceptionally pragmatic search for consensus in politics, both at home and abroad. But they also stress her lack of "big vision" and an innate conservatism that precluded grand initiatives. It's day three since her announcement that she will see out her current term as chancellor until 2021 - but stand aside as CDU party leader in just six weeks' time. So now the doubts are spreading.

Mainland European politics can often be more programmed than political custom and practice in Ireland. But the principle of being "forgotten but not gone" still applies as much in Germany as in Ireland.

Once you say you're going - whatever the time frame - you really are gone and power leaches away. Few will bet on Ms Merkel getting all the way to autumn 2021. It is likely that her disgruntled grand coalition partners, the Social Democrats, will pull the plug on the German government next year.

Ms Merkel (64) says she is not interested in taking a big EU job in Brussels. Two such posts will fall vacant this time next year as replacements are sought for Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and Council President Donald Tusk.

Her expressions of "no interest" must be taken at face value for now - but we shall see. She would be a formidable candidate, but after running the EU's biggest member state it might be a poor option.

Ms Merkel has been a very important powerbroker in the EU since her arrival in 2005 as German chancellor.

She has applied the same practical quest for conciliation and compromise that she deployed in domestic politics and succeeded on the Ukrainian crisis and, to a far lesser degree, over migration.

But Ms Merkel has never set out her vision for Europe. When the pro-EU Emmanuel Macron was elected president of France, she responded slowly and carefully to his ambitious European agenda, especially on eurozone reform.

To many in Brussels, it was a missed opportunity.

The one to watch from here on is President Macron as Merkel's exit puts him centre stage.

Irish Independent

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