In late September, a century after the Great War turned Europe into a charnel house, European leaders gathered in Tallinn, Estonia, to consider the future of the European Union. The meeting was much anticipated. One reason was that, two days earlier, on September 26, French President Emmanuel Macron had laid out his vision for the EU in a lengthy speech at the Sorbonne. Two days before that, the German Bundestag elections had dealt a setback to Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats, or CDU, who turned in their worst electoral performance since 1949. Merkel would be able to continue in a fourth term as chancellor, but only (it seemed at the time) in a new coalition with the Greens and the Free Democrats, or FDP, whose leader, Christian Lindner, was known to oppose Macron’s call for an expanded EU budget and an EU finance minister. Would the pressures of domestic politics compel Merkel to abandon her support for EU reform along the lines proposed by the French president?
At the event, Merkel, the ever-cautious, ever-shrewd “Mutti,” or grandmother of the fatherland, as the German press has nicknamed her, remained sufficiently confident to stick her neck out slightly more than usual. “I am strongly convinced that Europe cannot stand still,” Merkel said in Tallinn. “We should very quickly enter into negotiations” on Macron’s reform proposals. But she simultaneously warned Macron to downplay those aspects of his EU agenda that antagonized the FDP.
Despite Macron’s compliance with Merkel’s wishes, Lindner announced on November 19 that he was breaking off discussions to form a so-called “Jamaica coalition” with Merkel’s CDU; its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU); and the Greens. Then, in another unanticipated reversal, Martin Schulz, the leader of the Social Democrats, or SPD—who had initially said that his party would not participate in a new “GroKo” (grand coalition) with Merkel’s Christian Democrats—announced on December 4 that he would enter into negotiations to form a new government. Significantly, this reversal was coupled with a call for closer cooperation with France on certain aspects of EU reform, especially in the area of defense. Macron’s proposals, which had seemed doomed after the German results came in, suddenly acquired a new lease on life.
Macron began his presidency with great expectations for what a close working relationship with Merkel could do for him. His vision of French domestic reform was one he was confident Germans would approve, since it resembled the reforms in the first decade of the 21st century that had transformed Germany from the “sick man of Europe” into the continent’s economic powerhouse. Macron had promised to liberalize French labor laws and cut government spending, and in his first months in office he moved quickly to make good on those promises. This year, and for the first time since 2007, France’s deficit may meet the limit—3 percent of GDP—imposed by the Maastricht Treaty.