Every week, a selection of leading experts answer a new question from Judy Dempsey on the foreign and security policy challenges shaping Europe’s role in the world.


Cornelius AdebahrAssociate in the Europe Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

Angela Merkel looks set to become the EU’s real leader if she can prevail in the struggle over the appointment of the next European Commission president—a race in which, ironically, she is not even participating. Yet, by determining the contest’s outcome, the German chancellor can cement her political base in Europe for years to come.

Still, this fight is not just about raw power, as British Prime Minister David Cameron seems to think. As in his domestic quarrel over a referendum on Britain’s EU membership, or previously with the EU’s fiscal pact, he has maneuvered himself into a yes/no corner where he can only lose. Merkel, in contrast, can do what she’s good at: work directly with other leaders. She should lean on her candidate for commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, to adopt a reformist agenda and on the softer naysayers to agree to such a program rather than a particular candidate.

Already on issues from Ukraine to climate and energy, the EU moves when Merkel does—and stalls when she falters. If she manages to make Juncker head of the commission, she can score a triple win: secure much-needed democratic credentials for the EU thanks to the new election-driven process of assigning the EU’s top jobs; determine the EU’s political agenda; and establish herself as Europe’s real leader. Too bad the current contest isn’t about her.


István HegedűsChairman of the Hungarian Europe Society

No. There is no such single leader. But Angela Merkel does have enough influence to create the big compromise needed to agree on the next European Commission president.

Bearing in mind her personal preferences, the results of the recent European and German elections, and the desire to keep the Brits in the EU, Merkel might be able to increase her room for maneuver to escape from a lose-lose situation. That would give EU heads of state and government and the leaders of the political groups in the European Parliament a better chance to find a balance between ideological and national agendas when they decide on not just one but all the top EU positions.

However, it would be a domestic problem for Merkel not to accept “the will of the people” by ignoring those voices in Germany critical of her hesitation to support unreservedly Jean-Claude Juncker’s candidacy for president of the European Commission. The special talks held on June 9–10 among Merkel, British Prime Minister David Cameron, Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt, and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte also had to take this political aspect into consideration: the challenge is not only how to neutralize a Euroskeptic British public.

And another observation about leadership: Europe’s new strongman—which is at least how the Hungarian pro-government media portrays Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán—was not invited to this meeting at all.


John KornblumSenior counselor at Noerr LLP and former U.S. ambassador to Germany

Few issues are so often debated and so seldom resolved as the dilemma of how to describe Germany’s role in Europe. As the largest country in the EU and the strongest economy between New York and Beijing, Germany certainly is influential in many ways. As the role of other European nations has declined, Germany’s has loomed more clearly.

But most commentators who talk about leadership actually mean something else. What they really mean is initiative and inspiration. Here, both Germany and Chancellor Angela Merkel fall short. German leaders, whatever their political coloration, cannot find it in their souls to jump out in front to proclaim new strategies, let alone visions. Germany was burned twice when it attempted to do so and does not intend to try again.

Sooner or later, foreign observers and Germans alike will become more accustomed to German “low-impact leadership.” Many in the United States will probably like it a lot. But until then, Berlin watchers will continue to puzzle over whether Germany is actually leading or not. My guess is that this is exactly as Merkel would have it.


Ian LesserExecutive director of the Transatlantic Center, the Brussels office of the German Marshall Fund of the United States

The short answer is yes—by default and by virtue of Germany’s economic and political power on the continent. The chancellor’s relative prominence is, above all, the result of growing leadership “demand.” This demand has been most obvious in navigating the twin shoals of feeble economic growth and faltering cohesion in the eurozone.

But the results of this year’s European Parliament elections and pending decisions on key positions in Brussels are also placing the role of Germany and Chancellor Angela Merkel in sharp relief. A resolution of the current political crisis is unthinkable without German initiative, even if the “supply” side of the leadership equation disappoints those seeking a more vigorous, charismatic defense of the European project.

The crisis over Ukraine is also creating strong demand for German foreign policy leadership, not least from across the Atlantic. Here, as on other fronts, Merkel’s leadership is necessary but uncertain, and not sufficient to manage what promises to be an increasingly competitive and crisis-prone relationship with Russia.


Denis MacShaneFormer UK minister for Europe

In football terms, Angela Merkel is Europe’s back four. She stops goals being scored, but she does not know how to score them. She is Europe’s leader faute de mieux for three reasons.

First, no other country has offered leadership. France’s erratic former president Nicolas Sarkozy and weak incumbent François Hollande are not EU players in the way previous leaders François Mitterrand or Valéry Giscard d’Estaing were. The UK under former prime minister Gordon Brown and his successor, David Cameron, has been an EU outlier. Italy under Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, now with the largest bloc of center-left members of the European Parliament (31), may play a role, but the country remains so weak economically.

Second, thanks to the reforms enacted by the previous German chancellor, Gerhard Schröder, which Merkel has lived off, Germany emerged as Europe’s only strong economy after 2008. This meant endless demands on German money, which pushed Merkel onto the defensive domestically. Former chancellor Helmut Kohl could sign any check to Europe. Merkel cannot.

Third, the rise of German post–Cold War neutralism means Merkel is not a strong U.S. ally and cannot be the No. 1 American partner on the continent in the way that past chancellors Konrad Adenauer, Willy Brandt, Helmut Schmidt, or Kohl were.

So Merkel can block but not initiate. Her crab-walk style suits a Germany that does not want to bother or be bothered by the outside world. She is the most powerful leader in the EU but has no idea where or how to lead Europe.


Roderick ParkesHead of the Europe Program at the Polish Institute for International Affairs

Muttikomplex: Collective neurosis or mental disorder involving unwarranted fixation on a female authority figure (the Mutti). Unhealthy. Affects subjects of both sexes. For males, the Mutti’s oblique personality and conflict-shyness make her a natural target for their projections. Females appreciate the Mutti’s strong Logos skills and tactical acuity.

The Mutti figure typically has very limited power at her disposal but, thanks to the expectations placed on her, will quickly grow in stature. A highly unstable disorder: should the demands and expectations reach excessive proportions, the Mutti can easily become associated in the minds of the subjects with possessiveness, ruthlessness, and control tendencies.

Subjects who become resentful of the Mutti and her apparently willful refusal to meet their needs (see Cameron, D., forthcoming 2017) may begin experiencing a strong urge to expunge her (figuratively speaking). This phase may be accompanied by so-called “replacement fixations” (on this, see Lagarde, C., Thorning-Schmidt, H., et al., 2014).

The Muttikomplex is particularly prevalent in northern Europe and in societies associated with a strong degree of emotional repression (Britain, the Netherlands, Sweden). In more macho cultures of the south (France, Italy), the Mutti figure is seldom appreciated. Related conditions: megalomania, self-delusion, . . .


Ulrich SpeckVisiting scholar at Carnegie Europe

Yes, Angela Merkel is leading in the EU, but only as a primus inter pares, or first among equals.

If the Chinese president wants to know what is going on in Ukraine, he calls Merkel, German chancellor and Europe’s leader by default. But her leadership in the EU isn’t the kind of leadership that the U.S. president has in Washington. It is informal, it is very limited in scope, and it is based on circumstances, some of which can change quickly.

Germany is powerful in the EU because of its size, its geographic position, and its economic success. And it is leading because the country enjoys the trust of its neighbors. At the same time, Germany is much too small and too weak to dominate Europe, and it largely lacks the hard side of power. It is seen as friendly, benevolent, and supportive, not threatening. That’s why Germany’s neighbors are not inclined to build an anti-German coalition.

If Merkel were to use bullying tactics, such an anti-German coalition would emerge quickly. All Merkel can do is find scope for consensus and then push for the solution acceptable to most.

In other words, Germany can only lead as a consensus builder. It must be on the side of the critical mass on every important issue. Berlin cannot drive its own agenda or push countries to do things to which they are strongly opposed.


Paweł ŚwiebodaPresident of demosEUROPA

Undoubtedly, Angela Merkel pulls more strings in Europe today than any other leader, and sometimes more than the rest of them combined. This is a function not only of the economic crisis but also of other leaders’ resignation to offer a credible alternative vision of how Europe should be run. When people complain about Germany hijacking the European agenda, the question should be asked as to who is putting forward a rival proposition.

The German chancellor has power but rarely shows leadership, at least not in the sense of capturing hearts and minds. She has not spelled out a holistic vision of the EU nor of the final destination in the ongoing reconstruction of the eurozone. This is pragmatic but hardly visionary. She has been a champion of closer ties with the United States and has consistently pushed for the proposed Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. However, when difficulties surfaced, she immediately pulled back and let sentiments carry the day.

Merkel seemed outraged at Russian President Vladimir Putin’s behavior at the outset of the Russia-Ukraine crisis and allegedly said he comes from another planet. And yet, she has since followed her business gurus and coalition partners into some sort of accommodation with Russia, as if not much had happened. This blurred her traditionally strong moral spine. If U.S. President Barack Obama leads from behind, Merkel leads from the universe of caution.


Stephen SzaboExecutive director of the Transatlantic Academy

There is no real leader in Europe, and certainly not Angela Merkel.

In her newly published memoir, former U.S. secretary of state Hillary Clinton writes that Merkel is “carrying Europe on her shoulders.” The German chancellor is the leader of the most important country in Europe, but as a German, she understands the observation of another former U.S. secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, that Germany is big enough to destabilize Europe but not powerful enough to unify it.

The “German problem” rests on this question of imbalances. Germany is not a hegemon in Europe and has more of a braking function than a leadership role. Germans understand this well, both from their history and from the way they govern their own country. Today’s Bundesrepublik is a federal state based on coalitions, decentralization, and compromise. It is fundamentally incrementalist and risk averse in its policymaking and has built in constitutional and cultural barriers to strong leaders given its experience during the Third Reich.

German leaders understand that the EU is an even more diffuse creature that cannot be led by one power. They realize that if Germany tried to be that leader, it would quickly be reacquainted with the old German problem of being encircled by countercoalitions. Chancellor Angela Merkel understands better than most that there is no real leader of Europe.