Who Will Be Europe’s Next Leader?

For the last several decades, ties between France and Germany have been the engine of European integration. After centuries of war on the European continent through which France and Germany were historic rivals and often bitter enemies, culminating in the devastation of World War II, European nations searched for a way to eliminate inter-continental fighting. Many of Europe’s leaders argued that economic integration was the first step and believed it would eventually pave the way for a politically integrated union of European states. Both original signatories of the Treaty of Rome in 1957 – where France and Germany, along with Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg, established the European Economic Community (EEC) –  and proponents of deeper integration, the partnership between Germany and France has been one of the driving forces ever since.

Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi shakes hands with former German Chancellor Angela Merkel

EU Leadership of Yore

Of course, friction continued to exist between the two partners. After World War II and for many years, France feared Germany would again become too economically and politically powerful, eclipsing its own position of power on the continent. Former French President Charles de Gaulle originally envisioned a Europe in which France and Germany would lead, but with France firmly holding the preeminent role. In those early years of the European integration project, Germany did play more of a supporting role to France as the German economy recovered and the country struggled to reconcile its place in Europe.

Today, however, the partnership dynamic changed. Germany now has Europe’s largest economy. In fact, Germany is considered to be the most powerful country in Europe, largely due to the long-serving German chancellor who just stepped down from office. During her 16 years in power, Angela Merkel led Europe, both domestically and on the world stage. And, there is likely to be a shift in the balance of power in Europe with Mrs. Merkel’s departure.

Could the New German Chancellor Fill the Void?

The new German chancellor, Olaf Scholz, took office in early December. This change in leadership comes at a time when analysts believe that Germany and the European Union are facing much uncertainty without the solid and predictable leadership of the former German chancellor. While the incoming German chancellor would certainly wield significant power, remnants of Merkel’s impressive and steady leadership, it will be months before the new chancellor is comfortably leading Germany and likely focusing inwards, before turning his attention to Europe. As a result, many European leaders are now vying to become the next leader of Europe in Mrs. Merkel’s absence.

The French President is in the Mix

Leading the way is France’s President Emmanuel Macron, who, as the Washington Post reported, “has been jockeying for years to be the next leader of Europe.” Many are looking to France to fill the void as France views the recent German elections as a chance to reset since Mr. Macron will seniority over the incoming chancellor. France during the Merkel years may not have been the leading country or leading economy; however,  the role France plays in Europe is crucial. This is true even if Mr. Macron’s central proposals – common European defense, euro zone reform, a common asylum policy, and taxes on U.S. tech companies,  – are not widely supported with in the EU. Mr. Macron faces a presidential election in April 2022 that could limit his influence in Europe, leading to even more questions about who will fill the role of Europe’s leader.

Italy is Also in the Race

Another leader in Europe is proving able to lead Europe after Mrs. Merkel’s departure: Prime Minister Mario Draghi of Italy. The Italian leader – who saved the euro as the former European Central Bank president – has made his voice heard throughout the EU, including in Europe’s reaction to the U.S.-manufactured crisis when withdrawing from Afghanistan. He pushed for an emergency Group of 20 meeting and even reached out to U.S. President Joe Biden during the botched evacuation.

He has also stepped in the EU’s bungled COVID-19 pandemic response. He has spoken publicly about using approximately $235 billion in EU money for pandemic recover. He even halted the export of AstraZeneca vaccine doses from the EU bound for Australia due to a shortage of vaccines inside the union. Dubbed the Australia experiment, observers view this as a turning point for Italian leadership in the EU. Mr. Draghi is becoming increasingly well-known and respected across Europe because he is not just fighting for Italy, but for the entire union. Mr. Draghi has presented himself as a likely contender to become the next leader of Europe.

Two is Better Than One

Yet despite the enthusiasm surrounding Mr. Draghi and the expectations set for Mr. Macron, speculation remains on whether just one leader can fill the void. Analysts say, though, that the likely new leaders of Europe will be both French President Macron and Italian Prime Minister Draghi, working in tandem. Politico ran a story on the two leaders in July, calling them “Europe’s new power couple.” Mr. Marcon and Mr. Draghi have similar backgrounds and values as both are former investment bankers and longtime supporters of EU integration.

Moreover, the relationship between France and Italy seems to be improving by the day. On November 26, both leaders signed a treaty called the Quirinale Treaty – aiming to replicate the 1963 Franco-German Elysée Treaty – to continue to improve bilateral relations. Through recent actions, including the signing of the treaty, it looks as though both leaders are positioning themselves to take on the leading role in Europe together.

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