Later, when Merkel took the lead on the refugee crisis, the rest of Europe did not follow. Germans felt abandoned by their fellow Europeans, while those in central and eastern Europe felt that Berlin pushed ahead without consulting them. A controversial deal with Turkey brought down numbers of arrivals, but has not solved the crisis.
To be fair, exercising political leadership in Europe is awkward for any German chancellor. “Germany never asked to be Europe’s indispensable nation. Circumstances forced it in into that role,” then-German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier wrote in 2016. Radek Sikorski, Poland’s foreign minister, could famously lament that he feared “German power less than German inaction” but Germans never have to wait long for unsavory Nazi comparisons whenever other European countries disagree with their initiatives. Leadership that developed partly by default, partly in response to the expectations of others, is difficult to sustain against such criticism. Macron’s task will be to alleviate some of the pressure on Merkel, even if that means edging into her backyard.
Circumstances beyond the EU make it all the more necessary to bolster a more resilient Europe. Germany’s decades-long attempt to keep a balanced relationship with Russia, Ostpolitik, has hit a wall with Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine. Russia’s aggressive revision of the European security architecture is throwing the rules-based order that Germany relies on into question. President Trump’s criticism of the EU, and more precisely of Germany on trade, refugees, or defense spending, provide another incentive for Europeans to get their act together. Merkel herself said, “The era in which we could fully rely on others is over to some extent.” And yet, Europe is still a military lightweight, hobbled in part by Germany’s under-investment in defense. While Merkel took the lead in maintaining unity on sanctions against Russia after its annexation of Crimea, she has not prevented the development of the Nord Steam II pipeline that increases eastern Europe’s energy dependence on Russia.
As Merkel embarks on what is likely her final term, her thoughts will no doubt turn to how her contributions to the stability of the EU will be remembered. (It was her mentor, Helmut Kohl, who led German reunification, and paved the way way for the euro with the Maastricht Treaty.) Over the next four years, she could respond to Macron’s speech by laying out her own ideas for the continent, confronting the differences between Berlin and Paris head on, rather than smoothing them over and building more European half measures. She could reach out to other European countries, build coalitions in the east and the south, and deploy her diplomatic skills to repair relationships damaged during the refugee and the euro crisis.
Merkel does not do grandeur. Sweeping proclamations are not her style. But the time to go bold—to transform from crisis manager to stateswoman—is now. It matters not just for her legacy, but for the future of Europe.