She dominated Europe – a de facto leader in a time of crisis. For 16 years, Angela Merkel has used her signature cautious, calm pragmatism to steer the continent through the rise of the far-right, a blundered response to migrant arrivals, and, of course, Brexit.
With the Merkel era drawing to a close, another European leader could emerge and take the helm. Here are the main contenders:
One of the most insightful endorsements of Mario Draghi’s leadership came from the Spanish prime minister, Pedro Sanchez, during a visit to Rome in June.
Describing the former European Central Bank chief as a “maestro”, Sanchez said: “Whenever Draghi speaks to the European Council, we all fall silent and listen. This isn’t something that happens often.”
Draghi, appointed Italian prime minister in February, has had a similar impact on the bunch of fractious political parties that make up his broad coalition, each of them falling into line over a range of thorny issues including the introduction of a Covid-19 vaccine passport.
He has also impressed the electorate, polling as Italy’s most appreciated leader. It’s a far cry from what the population is used to.
Draghi’s government has salvaged the country’s vaccination programme, revived the economy and adopted workable measures to contain coronavirus infections. On top of that, Draghi managed to push through a contested reform of the justice system, a requirement for Italy to secure the lion’s share of the European Union’s pandemic recovery fund.
“Things need to be done because they need to be done, not to have an immediate result, even if they are unpopular,” Draghi said earlier in September.
Pragmatic, calm, decisive and not afraid to say it how it is, for some of those close to him, Draghi, respected abroad as much as he is at home, is the most viable person to fill Merkel’s shoes as Europe’s de facto leader.
“We have the most prominent figure, it’s Draghi,” said Giancarlo Giorgetti, Italy’s minister of economic development.
European politics played almost no role in the German election campaign. Which probably has a lot to do with the fact that despite the differences in policies between the parties now jockeying for a position in the post-Merkel government, on Europe every mainstream party is more or less on the same page: Germany needs the EU almost more than the EU needs Germany. It’s raison d’etre is to ensure it does not fail.
If Scholz successfully assembles a coalition government and become chancellor, not that much is likely to change.
His role as finance minister under Merkel – responsible for keeping the economy going – and his central contribution towards setting up the EU’s €750bn (£642bn) coronavirus recovery fund, reinforced his commitment to the bloc as well as his gravitas as a strategic, albeit not exciting, decision-maker.
He called the fund “a clear signal for European solidarity and strength”, at the same time as he sent the message to a domestic audience that a powerful recovery in Europe was a crucial prerequisite for securing Germany’s own economic prosperity.
Scholz would be under pressure to take a leadership role over issues such as creating a refugee policy based on solidarity – something Merkel did not manage to achieve – as well as the challenge of driving environmental reform and coupling it with economic growth. He is a pragmatist rather than a visionary, but that is more likely to reassure than put off his future counterparts.
Macron has been outlining his vision for Europe since his election, arguing repeatedly since his major Sorbonne speech in 2017 that the EU has to address its failings: in his words, “too weak, too slow, too inefficient”.
His proposals, – an integrated EU defence, eurozone reform, a common asylum policy, a digital tax – have made little progress, hampered partly by a paralysed German coalition and the cautious, consensual instincts of Merkel.
Few observers believe, however, that the chancellor’s departure will clear the way for France’s ambitious, impatient and at times arrogant president to step straight into her shoes: no single leader, most say, will match Merkel’s influence at its peak.
In the wake of this month’s crisis with the US, Australia and the UK over the Aukus security deal, which cost France a multibillion-euro submarine contract, he once more urged greater European autonomy as China rises and the US refocuses on Asia.
After the chaotic western withdrawal from Afghanistan and the Aukus debacle, more EU leaders may now be willing to agree that the EU must be less dependent on Washington – but few want to risk harming transatlantic relations, and an EU army is a long way off.
How far Macron succeeds in advancing his agenda will depend largely on the success of France’s six-month presidency of the EU, which starts in January, and, of course, on him securing re-election himself in next April’s French presidential election.
He will certainly try to assume Merkel’s mantle. But he will need partners to get anywhere, along with compromise and consensus: the hallmarks of Merkel, but not, so far, Macron.