Once upon a time there was a statesman who led Britain through the worst crisis in its history. A healthy pragmatism was among the many qualities which allowed Winston Churchill to accomplish this feat. He himself put it like this: “It is not enough that we do our best; sometimes we must do what is required.”
By doing so, Churchill put his country’s well-being above all else. For precisely this reason, Theresa May will never manage to step out of the shadow of her giant predecessor. Posterity will regard her, in comparison, as a mere pipsqueak.
Britain is suffering terribly from a weakness of political leadership and the whole of Europe is suffering along with her. In the entire UK, there appears not to be single political figure capable of organizing the withdrawal from the European Union in a sensible, rational manner. Continental observers quite rightly bemoan the political incapacitation afflicting their island neighbor.
However, the European Union doesn’t seem much better off with its current crop of political leaders. Since the appearance of the “gilets jaunes” protests, French president Emanuel Macron, once so keen to depict himself as a model European, seems to have left the stage. His grand political plans for Europe – a digital tax, a common euro-zone budget – have died a pathetic death. France has other more pressing worries right now.
The leaders of the EU’s other large members are not paying much attention to the organization either, because they cannot or because they do not want to. Spain’s minority government is fighting for its life. The nationalist populists in power in Italy and Poland care little for a united Europe. Among the major EU nations, that leaves only Germany.
Merkel's diminished influence
For many years, Angela Merkel enjoyed great success as a crisis manager on the European stage, driving integration forward in the process. But all that has changed since the last German election, and the EU must now do without the German chancellor’s leadership.
There is palpable disappointment at her disappearance from the scene. In Brussels, the talk is of Merkel’s loss of authority. She has done little to address the Brexit problem, they say, and not much about Trump’s aggressive trade policies either. This is despite the fact that the German economy would be hard hit by a chaotic Brexit and new American tariffs.
The old Angela Merkel is sorely missed. It was she who ultimately steered the European ship through so many storms over the past few years. During the euro crisis, she pushed for the currency union to be equipped with new collective institutions: the European Stability Mechanism, designed to provide help for member states in financial difficulty, the European Central Bank’s regime of banking supervision, and the Single Resolution Mechanism, to deal with failing banks. She prevented Greece from being kicked out of the euro zone.
Lessons for Ms. May
To do so meant overcoming considerable political resistance at home. During her fraught coalition with the business-friendly Free Democrats, she was even prepared to reach out to the Social Democrats, then in opposition, in order to get things done. Theresa May could learn a lesson or two from that.
One of Merkel’s more memorable interventions came during the Ukraine crisis. The Minsk Accords she negotiated may not have brought peace to that country, but at least it stopped any further escalation of the conflict with Russia. The refugee crisis was an even greater triumph: The Chancellor personally shepherded the migration agreement with Turkey through, even while facing skepticism from many EU countries, including France. That agreement made a vital contribution to stopping the flow of refugees along the Balkan route.
If the European Union were in better shape, Merkel could be content with her achievements. But the bloc is marching, eyes wide open and fully aware, straight into a crisis of historic proportions. There have been no shortage of warnings about the drastic economic consequences of a chaotic Brexit. But precisely this is coming closer every day. Everyone looks on, apparently helpless, including Angela Merkel. But who else could lead Europe through this crisis, if not the leader of the group’s largest country?
Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, cannot manage this alone. A king without a kingdom, his authority only stretches as far as the large member states will allow. They have made the Commission responsible for the two most dangerous challenges that the EU faces: Brexit and trade conflict with the US. If both go badly wrong – the worst case scenario – Europe will face a severe economic crisis.
In that case, many European governments may be tempted to use Brussels as a scapegoat. But that simply won’t work. Responsibility will fall back onto the larger member states – and their people will ask why their leaders were not able to prevent an all-too-predictable disaster.
Ruth Berschens heads Handelsblatt's Brussels office, leading coverage of European policy. To contact the author: [email protected]