ROME — There’s a story — possibly apocryphal — that in the midst of one Cold War crisis, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger famously asked, “Who do I call if I want to speak to ‘Europe?’”
For more than a decade, the answer was easy: German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Now, with Ms. Merkel retired after 16 years at the helm of Europe’s largest economy, Mr. Kissinger’s question is more relevant than ever. Hot crises are brewing with Russia along the continent’s old Cold War divide, COVID-19 is blindsiding economic policymakers, and governments on both sides of the Atlantic are trying to calibrate the right approach to China.
The need for coordinated policies between Washington and its European allies is urgent.
Because individual European Union member states hold so much decision-making power, the EU’s executive branch, the European Commission, has always been weak, especially by the standards of the U.S. presidency. The commission cannot push through bold policies if even a single member objects.
Through every major European crisis of recent years — the sovereign debt crunch, the waves of refugees, the pandemic, Brexit, among others — Ms. Merkel’s calm, pragmatic leadership guided the EU. Now that she is gone, who can fill that role?
Most of the speculation about Ms. Merkel’s replacement as the European Union’s de facto leader centers around three or four figures: Olaf Scholz, 63, her successor as German chancellor; the hard-charging French President Emmanuel Macron, 43, now the longest-serving leader of a major European economy; 74-year-old Mario Draghi, the Italian prime minister who helped save the euro currency during a highly respected eight-year stint as the head of the European Central Bank ending in 2019; or perhaps the European Commission president, a position currently headed by Ursula von der Leyen, 63, who cut her teeth as Ms. Merkel’s minister of defense from 2013 to 2019.
“At least for now, the most likely candidates are probably Macron or Draghi, with Scholz likely to gain more influence as he becomes more established over time,” said Jon Worth, a commentator, a member of the World Economic Forum’s Europe Policy Group and a professor at the Belgium-based College of Europe. “But that doesn’t mean they’ll play the role Merkel played.”
Lorenzo Codogno, the founder and chief economist of LC Macro Advisers and a visiting professor at the London School of Economics, said Ms. Merkel’s departure will probably reduce Germany’s influence in the short term, while the stature of Mr. Macron and Mr. Draghi might increase the importance of France and Italy, respectively, at least for a while.
“In late November, Macron and Draghi met in Rome to finalize the Quirinal Treaty aimed at strengthening ties between the two countries, stabilizing the EU and probably solidifying the role of their countries within the EU,” Mr. Codogno said. “I think that helps both countries, but especially Italy. We may end up seeing France, Italy and Germany on more or less equal footing for now.”
Mr. Macron has been handed a fortuitous advantage in the sweepstakes to be Europe’s new voice. In January, France will take over the six-month rotating chairmanship of the European Union, and Mr. Macron has already tried to put his stamp on how the post-Merkel EU should operate. That builds on the traditional French desire to make the EU a stronger force in world politics and security matters, including the push for a European-only defense force that many in Washington have long feared would compete with and drain resources from the trans-Atlantic NATO alliance.
With Ms. Merkel now out of the picture and with traditionally euroskeptic Britain entirely out of the union, Mr. Macron may have more running room for his vision of a more powerful and centralized EU.
France’s aim for its EU presidency is “to move towards a Europe that is powerful in the world, fully sovereign, free in its choices and in charge of its own destiny,” Mr. Macron told a news conference on Dec. 9 in Paris.
“I would say that we must move from a Europe of cooperation within our borders to a Europe that is powerful in the world, fully sovereign, free in its choices and master of its destiny,” he added.
The problem with Mr. Macron and Mr. Draghi, according to Mr. Worth, Mr. Codogno and other analysts, is that neither may be in his current job for long. Mr. Macron faces a tricky reelection race in April, and there is widespread speculation that Mr. Draghi could step down as soon as next month to replace Sergio Mattarella as president, Italy’s head of state.
Germany’s Mr. Scholz is not well known internationally and is still settling his job as Germany’s head of government. Ms. Von der Leyen, meanwhile, has too low a profile and may have too many technical and bureaucratic obligations to assert the kind of informal authority and gravitas Ms. Merkel had.
Jacob Kirkegaard, a senior fellow at the Brussels office of the German Marshall Fund of the United States, said the stakes are high for the EU during the post-Merkel transition period. The 27-nation bloc continues to confront the COVID-19 pandemic, the challenges to the rule of law in member states including Poland and Hungary, and rising political and economic tensions between the U.S. and both Russia and China.
“The EU may just move forward without a pan-European leader like Merkel, who needed a few years and specific conditions to grow into that role herself,” Mr. Kirkegaard said. “Historically, it’s the norm to be without anyone in that role. We probably won’t see another major European leader who stays in office for more than eight years, let alone 16, as was the case with Merkel.”
Mr. Worth said it won’t be simple to replace Ms. Merkel.
“Merkel didn’t weigh in on every issue, but when she did she was careful and thoughtful and not an ideologue, and her decisions carried weight,” he said. “There’s no easy or automatic replacement for her in that way, and that may be the case for the foreseeable future.”