Can the Pandemic Revive Relations Between Macron and Merkel?

Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron at a European Council meeting in 2017 European Council/Flickr

French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel never seemed to be on the same wavelength when it came to the future of the European Union (EU). While Macron has made progressive EU policy and bold calls to action central to his political brand, Merkel tends to put the brakes on Macron’s reforms. But recently, the two leaders came together on the EU Recovery Fund, a plan to rebuild European economies struggling during the COVID-19 pandemic. Could this newfound collaboration be a starting point for a more pragmatic relationship between the two countries, reviving what was once known as “Franco-German engine”

A Fund to Keep the Union Together

The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020 moved the EU to the brink of crisis. In addition to the tragic loss of thousands of lives, the pandemic has ushered in an unprecedented economic downturn. With most leaders focused on mitigating the consequences on a domestic level, the EU Council seemed paralyzed to respond. Tensions were growing between the particularly hard-hit southern European countries and the less affected north. 

But on May 18, Macron and Merkel broke the political deadlock and presented a joint blueprint for an EU Recovery Fund. They managed what had seemed impossible for weeks: appeasing the “frugal four” while providing the ailing south with signals of (financial) solidarity. Two months later on July 21, the EU Council approved a revised €750 billion fund. Hailed as a historic deal, the fund is unprecedented in size and breaks with many member states’ long-held opposition to common debt. 

Although Merkel and Macron acted in concert to broker the compromise, the fund was not born out of a shared vision for a more integrated Europe. Instead, it was a pragmatic step to prevent the union from further fragmentation. It also aligned with the two leaders’ national interests. 

Germany’s export industry, the motor of its economy, depends heavily on the purchasing power of southern Europe. A speedy recovery of these European economies is central to Germany’s economic rebound. In addition, Germany has held the presidency of the Council of the EU since July 1. A failure to secure a deal would have raised questions about the leadership capability of the most powerful country in the bloc. 

Macron’s presidency has been marked by difficulties from the start, from the costly appeasement of the Yellow Vest Movement in 2018, pension reform that caused mass demonstrations in late 2019, and persistently low polling numbers. After his party’s poor performance in the first round of regional elections in March, it is only natural he would turn to Europe to improve his national standing. 

Lucky for him, Merkel also saw the deal as beneficial and did not hit the brakes this time. The result is an example of solid and much-needed Franco-German cooperation. But will it last?

What To Expect this Fall

The ongoing health crisis is not likely to inspire any major EU policy initiatives from Macron and Merkel. EU institutions are limited in their ability to fight the pandemic, designed to play only a complementary role in public health matters. While an intergovernmental approach is still possible, EU countries are unlikely to cede control over a policy area so close to their citizens. We’ve already seen this play out in the form of short-notice and unilateral travel restrictions for EU travelers. 

Beyond the pandemic, French and German day-to-day politics will limit the leaders’ ability to deal with EU issues. Germany is preparing for elections next fall as the race for Merkel’s successor is wide open. In France, Macron finds himself under pressure from forces across the political spectrum and has vowed to continue pushing forth his ambitious pre-COVID reform agenda. 

The EU Needs Franco-German Leadership 

In the coming months, the EU will face a number of challenges. Strong Franco-German leadership would help the bloc successfully tackle these issues head on.

The underlying causes of the north-south divide that threatened EU cohesion during the recovery talks haven’t disappeared. France and Germany should embrace their geographic location in the middle of the continent and serve as mediators between the opposing factions. In addition, the long-known east-west divide over the rule of law is far from settled. A revamping of the “Weimar Triangle,” a loose grouping of Germany, France, and Poland, could improve relations with increasingly autocratic Poland.

Just outside the EU borders, Belarus is in a state of upheaval. A concerted EU position in favor of the democratic protests and fair elections could serve as a strong counter force against Russia’s backing of dictator Lukashenko. 

Lastly, European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen’s ambitious plan to boost the EU’s role on the world stage remains nothing more than a weak policy proposal without the active backing of the two most powerful EU countries.

The tense EU negotiations on the Recovery Fund showed that a combination of political pressure and enlightened self-interest provide good working conditions for solid Franco-German cooperation. This fall, Macron and Merkel should step up to the moment, mend divisions in the EU, and consolidate the bloc’s position in the world. After all, Macron’s competence on EU matters is undisputed throughout France and a foreign policy success could once again earn him a badly needed boost in national politics. In Germany, Merkel’s final year of a 16-year reign as chancellor presents the perfect opportunity to improve her EU legacy with ambitious Franco-German policy.

In late August, for the first time, Merkel visited Macron at his summer retreat in southern France, perhaps indicating that the pandemic-sparked collaboration just might last.


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