No parting gift for Angela Merkel at her last EU summit in office. After 16 years of informal leadership, the Chancellor leaves the European stage without a final piece of art. She would have liked to revive the EU-Russia dialogue, which had been suspended in 2014, but the plan launched recently by her and Macron met unexpected resistance from fellow government leaders last week.
She should have known. In the face of the September Bundestag elections, in which she herself is not participating, Merkel is almost out of touch. Then you lose credit among the political animals in the European Council. It is precisely in the midst of government leaders that the power of the ballot box counts – more than the outside world realizes. It says a lot about the mores of this special company, which embodies the highest authority in the EU.
Certainly, the opening to Russia was criticized on substantive grounds. Eastern European leaders saw it as an undeserved reward for the Kremlin. They also distrust Germany and France in this regard. On the other hand, if America’s President Joe Biden could hold a summit with Vladimir Putin on the security of our continent in Geneva, why shouldn’t the EU be allowed to resume talks with Moscow? And then coordinated, not just in casual conversations of Berlin, Paris or Rome.
A Merkel in full force at the table would have refuted dissenting voices from European colleagues, dispelled doubts, and probably got her way by appealing to shared interests – with some assurances and semantic comfort. This time, however, she got zero on the bill. At the end of the evening, the line against Putin was harder than at the start. Loss of authority in the picture.
Political authority is an elusive quality, but no less essential for the functioning of democratic institutions. It comes in varieties. On the one hand there is it institutional authority of a position. All members of the European Council – president, prime minister or chancellor – represent their state. When the leader of Germany speaks, people usually listen better than when Malta speaks. Yet all are formally equal. A guest in Luxembourg said French President Mitterrand it ever like this: “We are equal in dignity.” It is a fundamental rule of the European society of states, dating back to 1648 – and expressed at EU summits today in the requirement of unanimity.
On the other hand, there is pure in person authority, resting on experience, intelligence, sense of humor. It is no different at the European top table than at ordinary people’s parties. For example, the voice of the young Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker outweighed his small country: he had good ideas, knew how to build bridges. Also personally: British Prime Minister David Cameron played the advantage native speaker to be keen on tinkering with joint decisions, that’s what I saw when I worked for the company’s chairman in the years 2010-2014.
Between the institutional and the purely personal lies what you electoral authority, resting on the bond with its own voters. Whoever has won national elections, is strong on the next meeting. Whoever loses in the polls towards the end of his term loses influence: almost gone, the colleagues see, we don’t have to take that into account as much. Prime Minister’s promises of a shaky minority government inspire less confidence than those who have a solid majority or – like a French president – a direct electoral mandate.
The verdict on Mario Draghi is revealing. As ECB president (2011-2019), he often came to update government leaders about the euro crisis; then they hung on his every word, because of the man’s enormous personal and technocratic authority. Draghi is now Prime Minister of Italy. He is still admired by colleagues, according to a diplomat recently against Politico, but he is regarded as a “general without troops” – in other words, a politician without a party, without a ballot box victory.
How far in the EU without Merkel? From day one she brought a lot of personal authority to Brussels, which was constantly growing. In this way it not only made Germany stronger, but also the European Council and thus the Union as a whole. No one will be able to absorb this loss right away. Neither Macron (who stands for national elections himself), nor the long-serving Rutte, nor EU presidents von der Leyen or Michel, nor her successor in Berlin.
But whoever it will be after September – Laschet (CDU), Baerbock (Greens) or Scholz (SPD) –, the new German chancellor will come in with firm institutional authority and a fresh electoral mandate. Talent and time can do the rest.
Luke of Middelaar is a political philosopher, historian and professor of EU law (Leiden).
A version of this article also appeared in NRC in the morning of June 30, 2021