End of ‘Merkron’: EU’s power couple prepares to bow out

French President Emmanuel Macron (R) greets German Chancellor Angela Merkel (L) as she arrives for a meeting at the Elysée Palace in Paris, France, 16 September 2021. [EPA-EFE/IAN LANGSDON]

French President Emmanuel Macron hosted Angela Merkel in Paris on Thursday (16 September) for the last time before the German chancellor stands down, spelling the end of a partnership at the heart of the European Union for the last four years.

Merkel is to relinquish power after German elections on September 26, bringing an end to her 16 years in office that has seen her work with four different French leaders starting with Jacques Chirac.

Macron, 24 years her junior, has never hidden his admiration for Merkel’s longevity, but his sometimes abrasive style and pro-European activism has contrasted with the more cautious approach of his German partner.

In 2019, during a rough patch in ties, Merkel admitted the pair “wrestle with each other” and had “differences in mentality”, leading Macron to declare that he believed in “productive confrontation”.

“They have very different styles,” said Alexandre Robinet-Borgomano, an expert on Germany at the French think-tank the Montaigne Institute.

“The chancellor is someone who takes her time, is always looking for compromises, whereas the president is a disruptor, who is prepared to make bold statements about problems he feels are being ignored,” he said.

But EU watchers say the two have managed to form an ultimately effective version of the fabled “Franco-German” locomotive that drives the 27-nation European Union.

“Despite their big differences, their cooperation has worked well,” Pawel Tokarski from the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin told AFP.

And as they spoke to reporters at the Elysée palace before their last scheduled working dinner Thursday, the two leaders were all smiles and charm.

Merkel responded to Macron’s “My dear Angela” with “My dear Emmanuel”, as they addressed each other with the familiar “Du” and “Tu”.

Dinner conversation topics were to range from Afghanistan, climate change and relations with China to EU policy, Merkel said.

“I have no fear of being bored,” she said of the evening ahead.

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Wrangling

During their time together, the “Merkron” tandem managed crises from Britain’s departure from the European Union and Donald Trump’s norm-shredding US presidency to the COVID-19 pandemic.

There were differences and friction along the way – over EU economic policy, Russian gas, Brexit and arms sales – which were thrashed out in regular phone calls and meetings.

“They are very different, but they both have a methodical character,” Europe Minister Clement Beaune, who has witnessed the pair up close since 2017, told AFP.

They also shared moments of genuine public affection, including at the 2018 ceremony to mark 100 years since the armistice that ended World War I, where they held each other in a symbolic embrace.

EU success

All Franco-German partnerships in Europe are judged by the standards of their illustrious forerunners, from Charles de Gaulle and Konrad Adenauer in the post-war era to Francois Mitterrand and Helmut Kohl in the 1980s.

The most significant moment in the Macron-Merkel era came at a gruelling EU summit in July last year when the bloc agreed for the first time to borrow money collectively – a major step that Germany had long resisted.

Recognising the damage wrought by COVID-19 on the EU economy, Merkel and Macron were the architects of a deal that will see the EU raise €800 billion to be spent around the bloc on infrastructure and new technology.

French officials were jubilant that the pair had succeeded in advancing further than most observers thought possible.

“It was the big European moment of the start of this century,” commented Robinet-Borgomano.

He believes the two have “laid the first stones” for a truly sovereign Europe, one capable of – at some point in the future – taking care of its own security and acting independently from the United States.

“There are still unresolved problems, like those for the eurozone for example, which is far from being stable,” Tokarski said. “This is a legacy that Merkel leaves for her successor.”

Merkel said on Thursday she hoped Germany would have a new government soon after the election to avoid a slowdown in ongoing EU reform.

Elections in Germany often lead to protracted coalition talks. In 2017, it took nearly six months before Merkel was finally given another term in office.

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