Don’t Take Germany's Rebuke to Macron Too Seriously

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The riposte from Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s chosen successor, to French President Emmanuel Macron’s recent salvo of ideas about how to strengthen the European Union highlights an uncomfortable truth: the strongest parties in continental Europe’s two strongest nations are campaigning against each other ahead of May’s elections to the European parliament. 

AKK, as the leader of Germany’s Christian Democratic Union is known, clearly intended her 1,900-word essay on “Getting Europe Right” to be, if not a rebuke, then a counterpoint to Macron’s barrage of proposals.

In grand style, Macron published his plan in 23 languages; AKK made do with just six. Where the French president called for half a dozen new European Union agencies to be set up, AKK pointedly agreed with only one of his proposals: a European Security Council that would include a post-Brexit Britain. Macron proposed the de facto re-founding of the EU at a stakeholders’ conference; AKK only went as far as a negotiation on a European Climate Protection Pact.

AKK has been trying to differentiate herself from Merkel, her mentor, as she prepares to fight the European parliamentary election and several local ones at the head of the CDU before making a bid for the chancellorship in 2021. Unlike Merkel, AKK has a common touch and is an eloquent public speaker; she also has strong, genuine conservative credentials, something for which there is pent-up demand among the CDU base. But the Europe essay could have been written by Merkel, the grandmaster of caution and down-to-earth realism and a defender of members states’ prerogatives in the EU.

“European centralism, European statism, the communitarization of debts, the Europeanization of social systems, and the minimum wage would be the wrong approach,” AKK wrote, rejecting Macron’s proposal for “a minimum European wage appropriate to each country and discussed collectively every year.”

Macron proposed “a common border force and a European asylum office.” But AKK suggested using Frontex, the EU border protection force, to plug any holes in Europe’s external frontiers that member states can’t, and setting up a common entry and exit database so that asylum claims and other entry applications can be processed at the outer borders. “Rethink” the Schengen borderless travel area, Macron urged; “complete” Schengen, AKK retorted.

Where Macron called for a European Innovation Council with “a budget on a par with the United States,” AKK argued that the EU’s innovation budget should suffice – as long as there is a common strategy singling out which technologies will be supported.

Where Macron, whose government was recently the first in Europe to introduce a digital levy, demanded EU supervision of the major online platforms, AKK threw her weight behind a digital tax based on the so-far-incomplete work of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

The list of differences goes on, and they are always of the same kind: Macron’s somewhat chaotic reformist boldness meets AKK’s measured pragmatism. But this isn’t just a recurrence of the traditional pattern within the EU, in which France pushes for more centralism and Germany acts as a restraining influence. Indeed, that pattern has begun to disintegrate, with both countries demanding European competition rules be relaxed to help companies in the bloc fend off challenges from state-backed Chinese firms and loosely regulated U.S. ones.

The divergence between Macron’s and AKK’s positions is mostly about the forthcoming European parliamentary election (that looming vote is also why AKK, not Merkel, wrote the response: As party leader, campaigning is her domain now). The two leaders’ goals in the election aren’t aligned. 

The French president’s En Marche party is fighting to become one of the biggest newcomers to the European Parliament after the vote. It is projected to win 22 seats and expected to try to set up a new liberal faction with kingmaking ambitions. Meanwhile, the CDU is fighting off a strong challenge from the Alternative for Germany Party that could boost populist influence in the EU legislature. Its goal is to do no worse than in 2014 and to prop up the dominant center-right European People’s Party so its candidate for the European Commission Presidency, Bavarian politician Manfred Weber, can get the job.

Because of these diverging goals, the leaders are preaching to different audiences: Macron to pro-European liberals who want a closer union, AKK to conservatives wondering whether they shouldn’t vote AfD just to show the mainstream CDU that it has become too elitist. That’s why AKK’s missive contains strong messages about the central role of national governments in the EU and the need to counter “Islamic trends,” which she says are incompatible with the idea of an open society. Macron, by contrast, doesn’t need to go there; throwing out lots of ideas for a more cohesive Europe works better for the electorate he is chasing.

Once the election is over, France and Germany will cooperate pragmatically, as they already are on changing EU competition rules. They will build combat aircraft together, and maybe even the European aircraft carrier, which AKK proposed in her essay as a symbol of Europe’s new global role as a third strategic decision-maker alongside the U.S. and China.

The two countries’ areas of agreement are based on common interest – not on their leaders’ idealistic visions. After Brexit, these areas of agreement gradually will become more visible as France and Germany are left to steer the EU with less internal opposition.

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

Leonid Bershidsky is Bloomberg Opinion's Europe columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.

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