The most intriguing political figure in the immediate aftermath of Sunday’s era-ending elections in Europe isn’t necessarily Francois Hollande, the Socialist who ousted conservative Nicolas Sarkozy as president of France, but Germany’s Angela Merkel, who leads the continent’s most powerful government and advocates austerity as a solution to economic woes.
More than any other European political leader, Merkel has dominated the debate as nations have struggled to end the widespread economic malaise that has already toppled several governments and left entire populations — Greece’s, for example — in bitterness and despair.
How will Merkel respond now that her closest ally, Sarkozy, has been shunned by France’s voters? Will she maintain her embrace of austerity — an embrace that nobody expects Hollande to share — or will she read the political tea leaves and consider exploring a different approach?
David Cameron, Britain’s embattled prime minister, will be especially watchful now that his own increasingly unpopular austerity program has thrown the United Kingdom back into a recession that threatens the Conservative Party’s tenuous hold on power.
Hollande said he would like to make Berlin his first stop in his role as president of France, but he warned that the Franco-German partnership was going to have to change and that from now on Europe’s key word must be “growth.”
These issues surely will dominate American politics this year, so voters here ought to pay attention.
Merkel said she would welcome Hollande “with open arms” in the German capital while insisting she would not accept his plan to renegotiate the European Union’s “austerity treaty” or pump European Union funds into the region’s stagnant economies. Thus a stalemate may be in the offing.
Hollande assumes power on May 15, but he may not wait until then to begin trying to persuade Merkel to modify her views prior to an informal European Union summit in Brussels scheduled for the end of the month and there is talk of a “growth plan” being on the agenda.
“Although the German and French starting positions seemed far apart, analysts suggested there was a lot of room for compromise despite Merkel’s open support for Sarkozy during the campaign,” The Washington Post observed Monday. Besides, the analysts argue, Merkel and Hollande both accept that Franco-German friendship is vital and has been a key element of both nation’s politics for half a century or more.
Even before Hollande won Sunday, his senior aides were in Germany seeking to reassure Merkel’s government, the German media reported. In a note summarizing their discussions, it was predicted that Hollande will pursue “a pragmatic solution” and that he “wants to align himself in continuity with Franco-German efforts for Europe.”
What separates Merkel from Hollande is her preference of how that should be done. Americans may witness a somewhat similar argument over strategies as President Obama seeks to win a second term, with challenger Mitt Romney playing Merkel.
“There are certainly some in Merkel’s Christian Democrats who believe with their heart and soul in fiscal prudence and austerity, but Merkel isn’t one of them,” one British commentator remarked. “In fact, she changed to a pro-growth tune as soon as a Hollande victory looked likely back in April.”
Maybe so, but given Merkel’s political agility, there’s no guarantee that Hollande’s election will cause a shift in priorities across the continent.
“The danger for Europe is not that the French and German leaders won’t get on, but that Merkel tricks Hollande into thinking he has won the argument while Europe continues on the same precarious path as before,” one analyst declared Monday.
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