Merkel Tries Not to Go Out With a Bang

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- It could have been a call for decisive action by a leader no longer tethered by domestic politics. But German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s appearance at the European Parliament on Tuesday was nothing of the sort: Merkel unbound is the same cautious, gradualist Merkel.

The speech, coming as she prepares to hand over leadership of her party, was billed as her vision for the future of Europe, an event to match French President Emmanuel Macron’s ambitious Sorbonne speech of September 2017. But she didn’t have a grand vision to present — or even clear answers to Macron’s proposals for a euro-zone budget, a common military force, a unified European asylum office and a smaller European Commission.

Her support for Macron’s idea of a European army made headlines — but it shouldn’t have because of the way her support was framed. “We should,” Merkel said, “work on the vision of creating a real European army one day.” That’s no more than her predecessor Helmut Kohl said a quarter of a century ago. Merkel didn’t speak in favor of creating a European strike force by the beginning of the next decade, as Macron proposed; she just let it be known that she likes the idea of a common army that would end the threat of intra-European wars once and for all, and would somehow operate within the framework of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

It was only on Macron’s euro-zone reform program that Merkel said to expect some, albeit limited, steps by a specific date: a small common budget, a more developed stabilization mechanism and a tighter banking union. “Visible success” will be there by December, she promised; she didn’t say exactly what that would look like. Whatever is presented is likely to be so unambitious that it will be hard to sell to European voters as a success. 

Merkel stressed that she saw tolerance as “the soul of Europe,” but fell short of naming any of the region’s more intolerant regimes, like Hungary and Poland. She called for responsible budgeting, yet didn’t mention Italy. It was almost as if she was affirming non-interference as a principle of her EU policy at a time when European bureaucrats, legislators and more outspoken political leaders have no compunction about publicly denouncing specific governments.

A day before the Merkel speech, a group of Macron allies in the French parliament published in the German daily Die Welt a call to levy a European tax on U.S. internet giants such as Google, Facebook and Amazon. If the lawmakers expected a specific reaction from Merkel, they were disappointed. There is, she said, a question as to how digital taxation should be handled — a simple reference to Germany’s position that, instead of rushing to impose a levy, Europe should try to reach an agreement with the U.S.

It’s not that Merkel looked tired or devoid of passion. She was visibly pleased by the applause she received and combative when her detractors booed. “That’s very pretty and honorable,” she said, flashing a tight smile. When challenged by lawmakers over her handling of the refugee crisis of 2015, she defended her actions with uncharacteristic force, arguing she had to relieve countries such as Hungary and Austria that couldn’t hold off the tens of thousands of immigrants massed at their borders and that the EU, with a population of 500 million, could have handled even more newcomers than eventually arrived.

Merkel, in other words, was engaged and in control — but she hasn’t, after years of compromises and muddling through, suddenly developed an imagination. If her speech delivered any single message, it was “Do no harm.” It’s a clear vision of sorts: Like few others, Merkel understands how fragile deals among European countries can be and how loosely the EU is stitched together.

But as a manifesto, it won’t help centrist parties in next year’s election to the European Parliament: They need to be able to spell out to voters more specific benefits from continuing European integration than Merkel can or wants to.

In a way, it’s a relief that Merkel won’t be fighting the election at the head of her party, the Christian Democratic Union. But given her desire to stay on as chancellor until the general election of 2021, she could have displayed more ambition in her lame duck years. That she didn’t was disappointing, and sobering if one believes there’s nothing much even she can do in today’s fractious European politics.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering European politics and business. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.

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