The Future of Europe

2021-09-20

On September 16, the Sciences Po American Foundation invited Yvonne Bendinger-Rothschild and Sciences Po Alumnus Benjamin Haddad to a Sciences Po Alumni Webinar titled: Europe After Merkel? Yvonne is the Executive Director of European American Chamber of Commerce, New York Chapter, and Benjamin is the Director of the Europe Center at the Atlantic Council. Yvonne is German-born, so she shed light on Germany’s strong position in the European Union. Benjamin’s expertise on the European Union and Franco-American relations brought a French perspective to the debate around where Europe is heading. The two engaged in this discussion around Germany’s upcoming Bundestag election on September 26 and the effects this election will have on Europe and international affairs.

The discussion began with a tracing of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s rise to power and legacy. As the first woman to ever be elected Chancellor in Germany, Merkel has become known as one of the most powerful women in the world during her 16 year position as head of the Christian Democratic Union. “I think we can expect to see continuity. Merkel has become the center of gravity for German politics, and to a large extent, European politics,” remarked Benjamin. Her leadership has often been seen as extremely cautious. While critics question her often for being a slow decision maker, Benjamin pointed out two major decisions during her reign: the decision to abandon nuclear power in Germany and the decision to open Germany to Syrian refugees.

The conversation then turned to the European Debt Crisis in 2008. “Merkel was an extremely cautious leader when Europe needed bold reforms,” said Benjamin. Yvonne expanded on Merkel’s mixed legacy. The austerity measures, although credited with saving the Euro, also had extreme consequences for Greece. “Austerity was a necessary evil in some countries. It has put us back on a better path looking forward,” she said. In the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, another one of Merkel’s stronger decisions, supported by French president Emmanuel Macron, was the Corona Bonds. Yvonne maintained that Merkel’s decision to invest in European infrastructure and support the various member states will be one of Merkel’s strongest legacies.

The next main question in the discussion asked, if Merkel is no longer at the head of the European Union, who will be? And how will this shift the power dynamics between member states? Yvonne listed a few possible candidates to take Merkel’s spot, from Italy’s Mario Draghi to the Netherlands’ Mark Rutte. Both Benjamin and Yvonne maintained, however, that Germany will still hold a central position in European decision making.

France’s position will also shift with the upcoming election. Merkel and Macron have often worked in tandem, but with upcoming elections in both countries, France’s relationships, both with Germany and other member states, can be expected to change. “German institutions prepare the Chancellor very well for European institutions,” said Benjamin. The decentralized nature of Germany’s politics closely resembles that of the EU. However, France’s more centralized system and direct governance poses additional challenges for French leadership to adapt to European leadership. France’s role as a European leader may be challenged by these changes, but the opportunity to lead Europe remains.

An additional change arising from the election in Germany will be the age of the new chancellor: “I think this is an opportunity to bring younger 40 and 50 year olds into the mix. These leaders have a completely different outlook on the transatlantic relationship,” said Yvonne. “The way I look at the United States is entirely different from the way my parents look at the United States.” The change in leadership is a great chance to create a whole new dynamic of European leaders and relationships, beyond just Germany. The U.S. has always had relationships with individual member states, but both the Biden Administration and the new German chancellor may be able to create a stronger relationship between the U.S. and the European Union at large. The rise of Europe’s role in technology is an additional factor drawing the U.S. and the European Union together, hinted at by the recent creation of the Transatlantic Tech and Trade Council.

Lastly, the conversation shifted to Germany and Europe’s dynamics with China and Russia. “I think we can expect a hardening of position from Germany,” said Benjamin with respect to Chinese trade and agreements. “Merkel and Macron do not want to be dragged into a competition between the United States and China, but Europe is not equidistant between the two. The United States is the ally, China is seen as a systemic rival.”

With respect to Russia, Yvonne presented NATO as the main character, rather than Europe. “The conflict in Ukraine is complex. I don’t think we are going to let them sink into the abyss, but it is not one German chancellor or French president who will decide that. We need to work with NATO, and develop a strategy for how to deal with Russia in the long term.” Both Benjamin and Yvonne echoed the sentiment that stronger actions in Ukraine should have been taken originally. “It is also true that Merkel has had a contradictory, mixed opinion on this,” said Benjamin. Nord Stream 2, the pipeline built between Russia and Europe, is part of this mixed response. “This will have a negative impact on the energy security of countries east of Germany.”

The conversation ended on the question of sovereignty. Hungary and Poland’s views of national sovereignty in relation to the EU has become increasingly controversial. Yvonne and Benjamin discussed how national sovereignty is limited in the EU, but no real sovereignty can be gained by leaving the EU, either. Leaving the decision making table, but still being dependent on other countries, leaves a relative sense of sovereignty. With a new chancellor, however, a stronger tone towards Hungary may be taken up.

Overall, Yvonne and Benjamin discussed the nuances of Merkel’s mixed legacy. Strong, formational decisions taken under her leadership have placed Germany at the head of the European Union, while also creating difficulties during 2008 and in regards to Russia. However, no matter who the next German chancellor is, Germany can be expected to remain a main advocate of the European Union

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