Coalition negotiations in Berlin will make for a period of political uncertainty that French President Emmanuel Macron is keen to exploit. He already has a new Italian partner, with whom he wants to steer the EU in a new direction.
BERLIN — In the coming weeks — perhaps even months — a power vacuum will reign in Berlin. But just like their colleagues in the world of science, political observers know that nature abhors a vacuum. It's just a matter of time, in other words, until the void is filled.
Does Germany's recent election mark the end of the country's leadership role in the European Union? Current coalition negotiations — which seem likely to drag on for some time — will force Berlin and Brussels to press pause. Others, in the meantime, won't be inclined to just sit quietly by and wait.
French President Emmanuel Macron sees himself as the natural leader of an EU that has lost the center of gravity that Merkel long provided. Even while her chancellorship was nearing its end, Macron was already preparing to take over the EU Council presidency, which begins in January and coincides with France's own elections.
Italy won't replace Germany
The Elysée Palace is already drawing up Macron's European report card. They recently pointed out that more than half of the 60 proposals the French president put forward in his speech at the Sorbonne in September 2017 have come to fruition.
"That speech formed the backbone of our European policy," says one of Macron's advisers.
Macron will not be alone when he takes on this new leadership role. He has found an ally in Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi, so much so that, when Draghi was elected earlier this year, the Financial Times speculated about "the EU's new power couple." They spoke of a new power axis between Rome and Paris, to replace the current driving forces of Germany and France. After "Mercron," can we now expect a "Dracron" axis?
July 2, 2019 - Bruxelles, Belgium - Angela Merkel
Draghi will play a key role
Former French Prime Minister Manuel Valls has also spoken of a "key role" for Rome and Paris. "At this stage of the power vacuum, the leadership role within the EU will fall to Macron and Mario Draghi," he said in an interview this past Sunday.
Dominique Moïsi, a French political scientist from the think tank Institut Montaigne, sees things a little differently. "Draghi is a kind of star and he will play a key role, but Italy won't replace Germany," he says.
Another politician who sees this as an "opportune moment" to be seized is Sandro Gozi. In his former role as the Italian government's under-secretary for European affairs, Gozi was tasked with negotiating the Quirinal Treaty, a bilateral agreement between Italy and France, modeled on the 1963 Elysée Treaty between France and West Germany and named after the Quirinal Palace in Rome, one of the three official residences of the Italian President.
That was at a difficult time in Franco-Italian relations, as Luigi Di Maio, Italy's then deputy prime minister, visited France to show support for the yellow vest protesters. The Quirinal Treaty was put on ice and Gozi switched sides, becoming a European advisor at the Elysée Palace. Now he is a member of the European Parliament, representing France.
Draghi's election victory was a stroke of luck for Macron.
"No one in Rome or Paris wants to replace the Franco-German axis, but within the EU we need to strengthen other relationships that complement it and establish new synergies," said Gozi in an interview with Die Welt. He is convinced that "the transformation of the EU will be based on three powers: Germany, France and Italy."
Draghi and Macron looking beyond Maastricht
One thing is certain: Draghi's election victory was a stroke of luck for Macron. In early September, the two had dinner together at a three-star restaurant in Marseille to celebrate Draghi's birthday. They have a lot in common: Both are staunchly pro-Europe, ex-bankers, skilled negotiators and convinced that relaxing the EU's strict national debt policies is unavoidable.
Both were among the signatories, furthermore, of a letter published in the early days of the pandemic in which nine European countries called for a "common debt instrument," which soon became central to discussions around the stability pact.
But Draghi and Macron want to go beyond Next Generation EU, the post-covid economic recovery fund. They think the Maastricht Treaty is no longer fit for purpose and believe that economic and political progress within the EU will only be made possible by relaxing rules around national debt. As the former head of the European Central Bank, which reformed the EU's monetary policy, Draghi seems almost predestined for this role.
With Italy holding the G20's rotating presidency this year, both Draghi and Macron are — or soon will be — in positions of power on the world stage. Rome and Paris hope to finally sign the ambitious Quirinal Treaty before the end of this year.
Gozi believes that close cooperation between France and Italy will ensure these issues will be at the top of the EU's agenda. "It's a response to difficult geopolitical demands," he says.