PARIS — Who was behind the response of a massive, solidarity-based recovery plan to the economic and social devastation caused by a devastating pandemic that threatened to deal a fatal blow to the cohesion of the European Union?
The answer lies in a trio: Christine Lagarde, Ursula von der Leyen and Angela Merkel, three women with different personalities and backgrounds, but who, each in her key position, knew how to make the right decisions at the right time. Three women, all in their 60s, did not expect to become the guiding lights of this moment.
It was thought that Merkel was in her political twilight years. Worn out by 13 years in power in Berlin, the dean of European leaders had announced at the end of 2018 that she was giving up her bid for a fifth term.
Von der Leyen, who a few months earlier had been propelled to the presidency of the European Commission, was as novice as Chancellor Merkel was experienced. The unpopular German defense minister, who was imposed as head of the EU executive by the heads of state and government, had received only hesitant support from members of the European Parliament.
Christine Lagarde was also a complete outsider when she was put forward by Emmanuel Macron to be head of the European Central Bank (ECB). The fact that she is a woman was important in this choice, in the name of gender parity for key positions in European institutions. The former finance minister had not run a central bank like her predecessors in Frankfurt; she was not even an economist. Would she know how to react in the event of a crisis?
It was Lagarde who, after a misstep that served as a warning, laid the first line of defense in the face of the crisis. On March 18, the president of the ECB announced that she was launching a massive plan to support the economy. The bank undertook buying back 1,000 billion euros of government and corporate debt in a few months, a strategy that was more ambitious than that of the Federal Reserve. The aim was to ease pressure on interest rates and ward off the risk of fragmentation in the Eurozone.
Three women, all in their 60s, did not expect to become the guiding lights of this moment.
"Extraordinary times call for extraordinary action," she said at the time. The central bank boosted the effort at the beginning of June with an additional 600 billion euros. Lagarde has learned the lessons of the 2008 crisis at the helm of a central bank that is now using all the resources of its mandate.
Merkel has taken a little longer to react. But she is now finally realizing that the developing depression will bring the countries of southern Europe to their knees and threaten the European Single Market. Pushed to its limits by the German Supreme Court, which questioned the legality of the ECB's action, the French presidency pushed the prudent and reasoned German counterpart to act and break the taboo of financial solidarity. Together with Emmanuel Macron, she is proposing a 500-billion euro recovery fund, borrowed collectively by the EU and redistributed by the European budget in transfers to the most vulnerable.
It is Merkel's U-turn that will allow von der Leyen to play her part. She has not remained inactive since the beginning of the crisis, constantly calling for cooperation among the member states, launching joint procurement programs for protective equipment at the end of February and, on March 19, initiating the first ever joint European reserve of emergency medical equipment.
While Paris and Berlin see fit to block exports of masks to avoid the depletion of reserves, the empathetic Ursula apologizes to the Italians for the lack of solidarity and the selfish reactions of the member states.
After the Franco-German agreement on May 18, the von der Leyen Commission shifted up a gear and in turn proposed a colossal recovery plan, raising European support to 750 billion euros. It lays the foundations for a health union, proposing in passing to protect European strategic industries from foreign predators when they benefit, as in China, from state subsidies. It also mobilizes funds for research into a vaccine available to all.
Each in her own field and with a certain humility, Christine Lagarde, Angela Merkel and Ursula von der Leyen have shown the added value of the European Union when it moves forward united and driven by the same ambition.
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