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The post-Merkel era begins in Brussels

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Germany’s election is three months away, but in Brussels, the post-Merkel era has begun.

And — to absolutely no one’s surprise —  it isn’t pretty.

For Angela Merkel, the German chancellor and longest-serving person around the EU leaders’ table, the summit that ended Friday almost certainly wasn’t her last European Council — she’ll likely still be a caretaker German leader at EU gatherings in October, as coalition talks back home determine her successor. But the impending retirement of the EU’s middle-ground tone-setter was already palpable this week, as leaders shed their political politesse to implore Viktor Orbán to drop an anti-LGBTQ+ law.

And the main combatants in the room just happened to be the EU’s next longest-serving leaders: the Netherlands’ Mark Rutte and Hungary’s Orbán, who have both been in power since 2010.

Rutte and Orbán clashed fiercely over LGBTQ+ rights Thursday night, with the Dutch premier even going so far as to suggest that Hungary should just leave the EU if it can’t respect fundamental rights and freedoms. And while the argument was ostensibly about the new Hungarian measures, it represented the start of a broader battle over EU values, and who will shape the EU’s voice once Merkel is gone — Rutte, a socially progressive liberal, or Orbán, the self-proclaimed champion of illiberal Christian democracy.

This week’s Council meeting was “a transition summit,” said one senior EU diplomat. Merkel, the diplomat added, “was still visible,” but “we’ll miss her skills and capacity to bridge between different positions.”

It was Merkel, of course, who many referred to as the “leader of the free world” after Donald Trump won the White House. And it was Merkel who many in Europe looked to as the steadiest of steady hands in crisis after crisis — whether on eurozone debt or, more recently, the coronavirus pandemic.

Now, she’s nearly gone. And fissures across the EU are expanding.

For Rutte and Orbán, the summit was the boiling point of a fight that has been bubbling since last summer.

With the pandemic surging, the two leaders found themselves at odds as the EU debated whether to link funds from the EU’s massive budget-and-recovery package to rule-of-law promises in EU countries. Rutte was a major proponent of the initiative, while Orbán became one of its most vocal detractors. At one point, Orbán played the victim, telling reporters: “I don’t know what is the personal reason for the Dutch prime minister to hate me.”

For Merkel, the summit was a last chance to use her stature. 

Her imminent departure was evident during a protracted and bitter debate among leaders over Russian policy. Merkel and her close ally, French President Emmanuel Macron, had pushed a last-minute proposal to offer a summit to Russian President Vladimir Putin as part of a new carrot-and-stick approach with Moscow. Poland, the Baltics and other nations, including some in the north, reacted furiously and torpedoed the plan.

Several EU officials and diplomats said they believed Merkel’s departure — and her desire to craft a legacy — played a role in her willingness to push an uncharacteristically late-hour and unprepared initiative. They also said that while Central and Eastern European leaders likely would have opposed the plan under any circumstances, the fact that Merkel is now effectively a lame duck made it easier for them to so forcefully denounce the idea.

For months, EU insiders have been bracing for this moment — the point at which Merkel, who took office in 2005 and has come to be seen as the EU’s most influential and stabilizing political force, would begin to fade in her prominence and relevance. That moment has now arrived, for better or worse, in tandem with the arrival on the world stage of U.S. President Joe Biden, who earlier this month notably chose Europe for his first trip abroad since taking office.

One major question for the post-Merkel era is what it will mean for European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, a disciple and close Merkel associate, having served in three ministerial posts during her chancellorship.

Another is what Merkel’s departure will mean for the European Council, the body composed of EU leaders that increasingly calls the shots but has grown increasingly fragmented. The shift, said a second EU diplomat, “somehow reflects also a more polarized environment” in society and politics worldwide.

And the way differences among leaders came out this time was surprising, said Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo, speaking to journalists at 3 a.m. after the end of the summit’s first day (European Councils are often an endurance feat for everyone involved).

“It’s the first time there was really such an open … confrontation between the large majority of the room with one member state,” he said. “And from what I have heard from colleagues, this was unseen. We have always seen the European Council as a place where people speak freely, but do it in a sort of diplomatic way. This was not a diplomatic discussion.”

There is no obvious candidate to take on Merkel’s bridge-building role. 

During this week’s heated summit, “Rutte and [Portuguese Prime Minister António] Costa showed they were in control,” said a third EU diplomat. Costa’s prominence may have come, in part, from his position as head of the rotating presidency of the Council of the EU. 

Belgium’s complicated coalition politics often produce bridge-building prime ministers. And the EU diplomat also noted that De Croo “is slowly becoming a leader, too.”

Meanwhile, Italy’s Mario Draghi, the former president of the European Central Bank and a respected veteran of the European political scene, “is admired, but he’s a general without troops” said a fourth diplomat, referring to the fact that Draghi is a technocrat without a political party behind him. 

One headline-grabbing name doesn’t seem in line to assume Merkel’s role, according to numerous diplomats — Macron.

The French president is facing an election next year and doesn’t bring the same background as Merkel. Additionally, many officials from Eastern European countries see him as a divisive figure, irked by his description of NATO — a military alliance they rely on as a bulwark against Moscow — as “brain dead.”

Yet for all the praise heaped on Merkel as she heads for the door, diplomats walked away from this week’s summit slightly puzzled: Why did Merkel, the even-keeled leader, willingly stir the pot with her last-minute Russia proposal? 

The proposal was instantly divisive and drew predictable opposition from countries that joined the bloc after the Cold War. 

Maybe it was a trade issue, some wondered? 

“Trade is always key in German foreign policy,” an EU official said. 

Others speculated it was an effort to match Biden after his Geneva summit with Putin. 

“We’re here discussing why she did that,” mused one diplomat during the summit. “Was it a legacy thing?”

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