Is Angela Merkel becoming a federalist?

, by Thomas Arnaldi, Translated by Juuso Järviniemi

All the versions of this article: [English] [français]

Is Angela Merkel becoming a federalist?
Angela Merkel at the debate on the future of Europe at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, 13 November 2018. Photo : © European Union 2018 - Source : EP - Marc DOSSMANN

On Tuesday, 13 November, Angela Merkel was invited to give a speech on the future of the European Union at the European Parliament in Strasbourg at its monthly plenary session. At this twelfth debate on the future of Europe with a head of state or government, Angela Merkel delivered an ode to solidarity and tolerance in a Europe that is trying to find its feet on the eve of European elections.

In what has become a routine occasion for MEPs at every plenary session of the Parliament held in Strasbourg, a head of state or government is invited to debate with the MEPs on the future of Europe. After Emmanuel Macron of France in April, Alexis Tsipras of Greece in September, Rüri Ratas of Estonia and Klaus Iohannis of Romania in October, it was the German Chancellor’s turn to present her vision for Europe. As Merkel has been heckled both at the European level by leaders who are awaiting concrete actions coming out of the German coalition’s European enthusiasm, and on the national arena that is undergoing a restructuring, her speech was anticipated with expectancy.

Vibrant ode to European solidarity

In front of ‘the world’s biggest parliament’, Angela Merkel did not disappoint – rather the contrary. She gave one of the most vibrant eulogies to the European project, praising at the same time the founding fathers like the first Commission President Walter Hallstein, and the Commission’s current Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier. At ‘the heart of European democracy’, she refashioned herself as a defender of ‘the tolerance [that] is an indispensable fundamental value of the European idea’. ‘I am convinced that Europe is our best chance for sustainable peace and prosperity, and a safer future’.

She forcefully stated that ‘solidarity is in the European DNA’ and that it ‘always must overcome national egoisms’, both from the viewpoint of the responsibility to respect the European values and identity, and from the mutual understanding of everyone’s interests. ‘Tolerance and solidarity are our common future’. Advocating for subsidiarity and the fact that each competence is exercised on the most appropriate level, Merkel declared that ‘solidarity is not synonymous with omnipresence. Solidarity means that Europe has to act where we need Europe, and when it helps strengthen our ability to act in a decisive and effective way’.

Speaking to a hospitable audience, despite the criticisms of some noisy Europhobes whom she was able to put in their place without ‘letting herself get irritated’, Merkel was able to defend a Christian-Democratic vision of Europe with a view to next May’s European elections. Praising Manfred Weber who wishes to strengthen the role of the European Parliament by granting it ‘an indirect right of legislative initiative’ through the European Commission if he becomes President, Angela Merkel also brought forward her vision of Europe in the field of security and defence, Europe’s economic success, and immigration.

A response to Macron’s proposals

‘Europe is only strong enough on the international scene when it is united, in order to have a voice that is heard and the power to defend its values and interests’. This is how Angela Merkel called for the creation of “a real European army”, citing Jean-Claude Juncker who has since 2014 argued that a ‘European army would show the whole world that there would no longer be war between European countries’. An echo to the French President Emmanuel Macron, whose shadow remained omnipresent during this debate. Even if Merkel calls for a creation of this army, it should not go against NATO commitments, but rather “complement” it.

In addition to this European army that would pool European resources and reduce costs to ensure a competitive interoperability of military forces in Europe, Angela Merkel called for a ‘European Security Council’ or rather the ‘development of a European weapon system’ and a ‘common European weapon export policy’, including for Germany. A vast programme, for sure.

In the field of economy, Angela Merkel seemed less hesitant about the creation of a budget for the Eurozone, the completion of the Banking union, and even a European tax on GAFA (Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon), whilst waiting to see how international cooperation in the field could work though OECD. More surprisingly, Merkel said she was ready to ‘give up on unanimity’ regarding some specific areas of cooperation when the European treaties allow for it.

Angela Merkel appealed for European solidarity, including on refugee and immigration policy. To guarantee free movement within the Schengen Area, she offered three solutions: developing Frontex, having a real European asylum system without neglecting the necessary development aid for countries in transition. ‘Here too, we have to give up some national competences and act together’ at the European level.

This looked like a federalist waltz in three-quarter time, where you get dizzy in the end, or maybe an incarnation of a dancing procession of Echternach, symbol of a European project that goes forward whilst moving backwards. Even after the announcement of a rather federalist vision, the intergovernmental plan prevails in the wait-and-see position. The announced European army is impossible to implement without a real schism with NATO and without a real strategic autonomy, while an intergovernmental organ is created for European security. And what about the economic and migration proposals whose effective implementation is hard to imagine despite the beautiful speeches made?

In Strasbourg, Angela Merkel acted like typical Angela Merkel: a subtle alliance between proactiveness, compromise, and a wait-and-see attitude regarding how the situation evolves. That has worked every time and has boosted Merkel’s popularity. Since Merkel’s announcement to retire from the Chancellery in 2021 and to make room for a successor at the helm of the CDU party, her image has improved in opinion polls, with an approval rating above 50% (an increase of 8 percentage points in a month).

Angela Merkel impresses even when in trouble

Even if her Interior minister Horst Seehofer had just announced his resignation from the leadership of CSU the day before, the Chancellor isn’t in any less difficulty domestically. Many MEPs were worried about the Grand Coalition’s fragility and Merkel’s willingness to lead European projects to the finish line. Even though Merkel is facing difficulty after announcing her non-candidacy for CDU leadership in December and her retirement from politics in 2021 at the end of her mandate, the Chancellor continues to impress. In power since 2005, she now has nothing to lose from an electoral viewpoint, and can therefore reveal herself in a new light by making real proposals for the EU’s future.

Although the German Chancellor displays incredible courage and self-sacrifice on the political arena, she nonetheless remains a head of government, characteristically intergovernmentalist, and seeking to transpose the country’s best national interest onto the European level. It’s lucky for the Europhiles that by highlighting the first chapter of the coalition agreement (‘a new momentum for Europe’), Angela Merkel is playing one of her last political cards: Europe. Thus, the brave proposals that the Chancellor advances in the fields of security, economy and migration could be called “federalist”, in accordance with their means of implementation. However, a call for the creation of the “United States of Europe”, like what Martin Schulz (SPD, former President of the European Parliament) did during the legislative elections campaign in 2017, did not happen.

Together with Emmanuel Macron, Angela Merkel instead incarnates the French-German twin engine in all of its splendour. Never before have there been as many embraces and as much closeness between the two in less than one week. The commemorations on the centenary of the “Great War” brought the two leaders closer, when they celebrated Franco-German reconciliation at the clearing of Rethondes, and when they heralded the Paris Peace Forum and the festivities near Arc de Triomphe on 11 November. While Emmanuel Macron endured the most serious diplomatic attacks on Twitter, the Chancellor also didn’t shy away from lecturing the American President Trump by arguing, for her part, for the idea of a “European army” and by presenting herself as a defender of multilateralism in Strasbourg.

Before attending the European Council again for the special Brexit summit this weekend, the two leaders, in all of the symbolism that unites them, met each other at the Bundestag in Berlin last Sunday, in a vibrant tribute to peace and reconciliation. No doubt that this duo is truly represents the ‘Franco-German couple’, even if they can be criticised regarding their federalist aspirations. Their commitment to Europe is certain – we just have to see it put into practice.

Find the Chancellor’s speech and the entirety of the debate at the European Parliament on the Parliament’s website.

The citations from Merkel’s speech do not constitute an official English translation of the speech.

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