Despite the long tenure of Frau Merkel as Chancellor, she has only now gained the kind of ambitious partner that will make good on Helmut Kohl’s legacy – and challenges remain
The work done by Helmut Kohl over his sixteen years as German Chancellor defined what Germany – and by extension, Europe – are today. Kohl can take credit for three enormous developments, the first of which, the reunification of East and West Germany, paved the way for the second and third. Those are the completion of the European political and economic project into its final stage, the European Union, sealed by the Maastricht Treaty in 1992, and the simultaneous approval of the Eurozone’s creation in that same treaty.
Kohl achieved all of this not with hard knock aggression but a cool approach to politics, that which Angela Merkel has since mastered as well. His 1989 Ten Points firmly elucidated his beliefs that Germany and Europe share a common destiny, and likewise addressed the constant British (and American) fears of a united Germany, remarking that Germany would form part of a “permanent and just European peace order.” His willingness to calmly but assuredly take on countries that, at the time, held precise contractual powers over Germany, led to the unshackling of the country in full terms by 1990. This ended the bizarre situation by which Kohl’s country was technically under military occupation of the Four Powers from World War II.
Parallel to Kohl, and during nearly exactly the same years as him, François Mitterrand of the Socialist Party served as French president. Together the two leaders forged an alliance that went from one of convenience in the beginning, to one of true partnership by the end.
Whereas Mitterand began with the upper hand (indeed, he was needed to sign off on Germany’s sovereignty until 1990), by the end it was a partnership of political and economic equals – with Germany rising quickly to the top of the EU pile as France stagnated somewhat.
The rise of Angela Merkel in the past decades came under Kohl’s shadow – she was herself first appointed a government minister by the Chancellor in 1991, after the first elections in unified Germany. She has now been Chancellor since 2005, and will likely be re-elected this September, at which time she will be able to ensure that her partnership with Monsieur Macron can provide for a strong and stable Europe (sans Theresa May’s Brexit Britain).
This partnership already shows the handover of Kohl and Mitterand’s legacy to the hands of Merkel and Macron – they have spoken often since Macron’s victory in early May, and Sunday’s legislative elections gave the French president the strong majority he needs to push domestic reforms alongside European reforms.
The similarities between the combinations are striking, though there are also clear differences. Merkel and Kohl are both of the CDU, while Macron is a former Socialist like Mitterand, but has risen quickly in the past fourteen months since he founded his own party, La république en marche! (LRM).
Differently to the former pair’s parallel eras, Merkel has already been chancellor for twelve years, meaning she is far more experienced than Macron. That doesn’t necessarily spell trouble, though. Macron’s appeal is in his youth and optimism, and certainly in his rhetoric and plans for the overhaul.
In comparison to the cautious German approach of both Kohl and Merkel, and even of Mitterand, Mr. Macron certainly represents a departure from the past. He is the most unique and overtly ambitious of the four. That will help in these times, which are quite different from the heady days of the late 80s and early 1990s. Hope and optimism sprang forth almost eternally between 1989 and the start of the Balkan Wars. It is unlikely the European Union, the Eurozone and the other pillars of the European community would have been implemented so quickly were it not for the rush of positive feelings of the era.
Today, the opposite can be said. A wave of terror has engulfed Europe, Brexit has tipped Britain into a tailspin of political chaos and economic uncertainty. A migration crisis still looms in Germany. Donald Trump is steadily isolating the US, almost pushing Europe towards China, which seems to benefit China more than the EU in most considerations. The spring of optimism has been replaced by financial stagnation that is just now receding, and indeed France finds itself at a turning point towards a future that seems unknown.
Yet the opportunity is bountiful. Macron and Merkel have the chance to reshape Europe in their eyes. They are today, just as Kohl and Mitterand were then, leaders of Europe’s two biggest countries. Today the UK is out (or nearly there), removing an obstacle for integration that Margaret Thatcher and many a Eurosceptic placed in front of Brussels. With no Nigel Farage in the European Parliament, soon enough they will be able to tackle head-on annoyance such as Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement in Italy, and already Marine Le Pen has seemed to lose much of her potential for disruption. The chance to tighten the bonds of Europe is in their hands – the partnership of Germany and France that prospered after a warming-up period between Mitterand and Kohl is now already hot, with two leaders who seem intent on showing the world they are more responsible than their neighbors across the Channel and across the Atlantic.
Indeed, if there is one thing that can help pull Europeans closer together, it always is a way to show up the Anglophones. Kohl would have hated to die a year ago – but this weekend, when he passed, it is possible he was able to comfort himself with the knowledge that his legacy is being actively defended by a protegée in Berlin and an upstart in Paris.