The choice was revealing when the three contenders seeking to replace Angela Merkel were asked during a television debate which capital they would first visit if elected chancellor.

Judy Dempsey
Dempsey is a nonresident senior fellow at Carnegie Europe and editor in chief of Strategic Europe.
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Armin Laschet, Merkel’s chosen candidate to replace her as Germany’s next Christian Democrat chancellor, declined to answer directly. “I wouldn’t reveal that until the time comes,” he said.

Annalena Baerbock, his counterpart from the Green party, replied: “To Brussels because German foreign policy must always be European. And America has said ‘America is back’ and you need a European answer to that. And therefore, to Brussels.”

And Olaf Scholz, making a bid to put the Social Democrats back in the chancellery after sixteen years of conservative leadership, had another destination. “Paris. Franco-German cooperation is central to our ability to move Europe forward and achieve European sovereignty,” he said.

Baerbock is the most committed of the candidates to a Europe that should become more integrated, more confident about leading, and more focused on innovation and tackling climate degradation.

The reality is, however, that Europe’s future does not lie in Brussels. Its future is determined by what France and Germany do together. If they don’t act in sync, Europe flounders. Scholz’s answer was spot on.

Yet amid the obsession with opinion polls and speculation about the constellation of Germany’s next coalition government, the most glaringly absent issue during the endless talk shows in Berlin has been Europe’s future. Not dealing with it confirms a dangerous indifference to a bloc whose continued existence cannot be taken for granted.

Merkel studiously ignored the EU’s future. French President Emmanuel Macron made the issue the center of his 2017 election campaign. And won. No matter how often Macron spoke to Merkel about the need for the two of them to engage over Europe’s future direction, she did not reciprocate.

Indeed, whether it was about defense, political and economic issues related to more integration, or the glaring need for democratic reform, Merkel was the opposite of Macron and her Christian Democrat predecessor, Helmut Kohl.

Kohl embraced European integration, with the EU’s executive, the European Commission, steering a ship with Berlin and Paris at the wheel, just as much as much Kohl embraced the transatlantic relationship. 

Yes, on her long watch, Merkel, understandably, did things differently. She abolished nuclear power without having a renewable energy infrastructure in place. No wonder the energy-intensive industries, such as chemicals, relied on Russian gas to make up for the shortfalls of nuclear energy.

She welcomed over one million refugees from Syria, a noble, humane decision that was made without getting her EU partners on board—not that they were thrilled about the idea of being decent Europeans. She maneuvered Europe and the euro currency out of the 2008 global financial crisis.

Yet when it came to the fundamentals of dealing with Europe’s future direction, Merkel shunned the big decisions that would have demanded a strategic philosophy. Strategy played no role in terms of defining the kind of long-term relationships that Europe, led by Germany, needs with Russia, China, and the United States.

So would Laschet, Scholz, or Baerbock make a difference?

Laschet, who sometimes boasts his European credentials—he was a member of the European Parliament—hasn’t said much about Europe during the campaign. For Baerbock, it’s the mainstay of her foreign policy.

Scholz is perhaps more intriguing. As finance minister, he has been responsible for underwriting the huge sums disbursed to employers and employees during coronavirus and influenced the structure of the EU’s post-pandemic recovery fund. He used the pandemic to persuade Merkel to support more European economic and fiscal integration.

Over the years, he has cultivated close contacts with the Élysée. The French president would be delighted if Scholz was elected just a few months before Macron himself seeks reelection. If both men emerge victorious, that might give Europe the push it needs.

There are European leaders who question the goals of the Franco-German tandem. Some Central European officials believe that the axis amounts to a stitch-up with both countries soft on Russia and China and not interested in reaching out to other member states. The latter was one of Kohl’s great skills.

Others fear a Gaullist footprint spreading throughout the EU. Historically, it was always the balance between Gaullist ambition and Germany’s pragmatic interests that motivated the EU. With Britain out of the picture, they fear that Berlin and Paris will rule the roost.

It’s not as simple as that.

France is seeking more EU allies, such as the Netherlands, when it comes to thorny issues about economic integration, defense, security, and the transatlantic relationship.

Merkel’s successor cannot risk supporting those countries that want more strategic autonomy in ways that would sour relations with the United States and within the EU, or a Eurozone group that cements a two-tier Europe. The latter is a recipe for resentment and divisions.

But none of that should stop the EU, pushed by a new German leader, from finally setting out Europe’s strategic interests. Prolonging the current penchant for continuity will render Europe unable to embrace modernization, innovation, and risk. That is why this German election will be so important.