Germany’s leadership gap – POLITICO

Mujtaba Rahman is the head of the Europe practice of the Eurasia Group and the author of POLITICS‘s Beyond the Bubble Column. He tweets to @Mij_Europe.

Although the German election results leave Europe’s largest economy in a state of uncertainty, the big picture is already clear: whoever the next Chancellor is, neither Olaf Scholz nor Armin Laschet will be able to deliver. strong leadership to the European Union.

It is as much a question of their inherent political competences as of the reality of the coalitions they will lead: made up of new parties in power, and – at the federal level – in relation to each other. Internal friction and internal politics will subtract the concentration and agency of the Chancellery in Europe.

To make matters worse, while it is not surprising that the departure of Chancellor Angela Merkel has an impact on the leadership and coherence of the bloc, her departure coincides with the preparations for the elections of French President Emmanuel Macron next year. .

With the first and second rounds of the presidential election scheduled for April 10 and 24 and legislative elections in June, these will undermine the substantial political impact Macron could have had when his country takes over the presidency of the Council of the Union. European Union in the first six months of 2022.

With a lame or weak government in Berlin, soon to be followed by the same in Paris, the EU will be deprived of strong leadership at a time when it could use it.

In particular, there are three areas of European policy – a standoff with the UK over the Northern Ireland Protocol, a rule of law dispute with Hungary and Poland, and the need for rule reform. EU budget – which call for political direction.

Brexit collision course

The most immediate challenge that the interim or new German government will face is Brexit. The UK is waiting for the EU to respond to its July “Command Paper”, in which Brexit Minister David Frost drew up a long list of demands to renegotiate the protocol.

While the Commission must respond to Frost’s proposals imminently, it is almost certain that Brussels’ attempts to appease the UK will not go far enough. This will certainly be the case with London’s attempt to prevent the European Court of Justice from reviewing the protocol, but it will extend to other areas as well.

So far, Scholz and Laschet have said very little about Brexit, beyond the EU’s oft-used line that they trust the Commission, which remains in the driver’s seat. On Monday, Scholz used a question about the shortage of truck drivers in the UK to make a joke about fair wages. But the stalemate could turn very political, with Frost and Prime Minister Boris Johnson raising the temperature ahead of the Conservative Party’s October 3-6 conference.

Both Frost and Johnson have insisted in public, and argued in private, that the threshold to trigger Section 16 has been met. Indeed, it is very possible that the government will make the decision to do so next week, throwing red meat at the party’s Eurosceptic base while putting both the opposition Labor Party and the EU in a predicament. very difficult, and conveniently diverting fuel and labor shortages. at home.

While this is not automatic and negotiations would follow, it could put both sides on an escalating path where trade retaliation becomes inevitable. Neither Scholz nor Laschet took a position on this issue, nor provided any indication that they would work to resolve the issues as impartially as Merkel did.

While Merkel is still in charge on an interim basis when this happens, the vacuum in Berlin and Paris risks leaving the problem to escalate.

Confrontation of the rule of law

While it may not be the most explosive, the most complex challenge the new German Chancellor will face will be the rule of law issues in Poland and Hungary. Regardless of who will lead the next government in Berlin, there is a perception that “Merkel has let this problem get out of hand,” according to a well-placed senior German official, and that Germany must now “put things right.”

This pressure in Berlin will complement developments in Brussels, where the Commission finds itself under increasing pressure from the European Parliament to take a stand against the two member countries for not disbursing the funds allocated to them under the stimulus facility and resilience.

But Parliament’s dossier is not as legally binding as MEPs would like it to be. As an adviser to an EU head of state put it: “We are now giving the EU a role and a competence that it does not have: to judge constitutional questions in the member states”.

“Despite a lot of propaganda in Parliament, the EU does not have a real rule of law mechanism, but an anti-fraud mechanism,” said the adviser. “It is protection for European taxpayers. But the political debate in Parliament is lopsided – not on the misuse of EU funds, but on the general state of politics in Poland and Hungary. “

Merkel has always succeeded in keeping the EU united, albeit at the expense of certain principles she claimed to have; The effectiveness of a weak Scholz and Laschet in navigating this fine line – the EU’s tenuous legal foundations combined with strong opposition from Warsaw and Budapest – remains rather unclear.

But some escalation seems inevitable, especially when it comes to Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who is perceived to have crossed too many red lines. Without a doubt, he will also seek to take a firm stand against Brussels ahead of the elections in his own country next April.

The spending deadlock

Perhaps the most important challenge the new German Chancellor will face concerns EU fiscal policy. With the Stability and Growth Pact due to enter into force in 2023, member countries must decide early next year whether and how they want to revise the rules.

Here, the chancellor’s choice could make a difference – but probably not a big one. Laschet is a soft Merkel conservative, unlikely to want to push too hard for reform. But if Scholz is not a fiscal hawk, he is also pragmatic. With the Free Liberal Democrats (FDP) likely playing a key role in his government – its leader Christian Lindner is widely nominated as the next finance minister – he will hesitate to fundamentally overhaul the Stability and Growth Pact.

This is especially true, as the FDP will be forced to approve more spending in its country, using off-budget investment funds and reallocating borrowing from this year, while pretending to support the constitutional brake of Germany’s indebtedness.

Under pressure from his own finance minister, Scholz will also be less effective in standing up to strong-minded northern European member countries, particularly the Netherlands, which are pushing for a full re-execution of the pact in 2023. – not in the belief that it will happen but to provide the basis from which negotiations must take place.

As a senior EU official told me: “The room for something really new and meaningful is much smaller than people think. Another confirmed: “The risk of disaster is greater than the probability of success. “

The lack of time in which this debate will take place adds to the risk. The European Commission will have to provide guidelines to EU capitals to establish their budget plans by mid-April, but senior officials in Brussels, Paris and Berlin no longer expect the new German government to have a firm stance on EU fiscal policy before January shortly to iron out a potential deal.

One thing is certain. Even if he might be tempted to try, the next Chancellor will not have the luxury of ignoring the EU’s most heated debates. Once seated, the demands and logic of the office will force Scholz or Laschet to seize the innate importance of Germany and advance its interests in the bloc.

The effectiveness with which they will do so remains far from clear.

About Norma Wade

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