The American Foreign Secretary Henry Kissinger famously once asked “Who do I call when I want to call Europe?” The modern day version coming from Rex Tillerson might be, “Who do I call, email, text, tweet…”, but the premise remains the same – who does one call to get the lowdown on Europe? With certain leadership figures rising above the crowd, the current U.S. Secretary has some pretty good options available.
Emmanuel Macron – The ambitious new kid on the bloc
The poster boy of French politics, Mr Emmanuel Macron has recently joined the ranks of rosy-cheeked nation state leaders on the world stage. After founding his own party En Marche! in early 2016 (a keen observer will note it shares the same initials as his own name), he led his party to victory less than a year later in the French parliamentary elections. His triumph was unprecedented and audacious; the presidential election was his first time running for public office and he won it with apparent ease. Such a rapid rise power is rarely achieved in politics by democratic means, although comparison could be made to a certain head of state across the Atlantic Ocean who also circumvented the typical route in his bid for Presidential office.
When it comes to winning the hearts of your electorate, the public is often more wooed by experience, reputation and charisma than actual politics.
Macron was sorely lacking in the first two categories; he worked as an investment banker at Rothschild & Co. in his formative years and had spent barely two years as Minister for Economy, Industry & Digital Affairs under President Hollande before stepping down to run for President. Charisma on the other hand, he had by the bucket load. His relationship with Francois Hollande was widely described as paternal, and former President Sarkozy likened Macron to himself, stating ‘Its me, but better.’
With his newfound power, Macron hopes to disrupt the political order in the European Union just as he has done at home. Recycling the strategy that accelerated his power-grab in France, his team is currently on the look out for potential political allies with which to found a new political group for the 2019 European Parliament elections. However his hope of creating a Pan-European list of candidates is unlikely to materialise in time, given that it would require an adjustment of electoral law in 27 EU countries. His attempt to guide the EU in an integrationist direction particularly in the areas of trade, defence and budget also faced setbacks, when his proposals were greeted with dissent at the EU leaders’ summit. For the first time maybe ever, Macron will have to exercise patience before his rise to the top.
Returning to France, the political mandate from his own people has inevitably weakened, with support dropping from 62% to 33% in the six months since Mr. Macron entered office. He has been described as ‘aloof’ and ‘pharaonic’ in the media, hardly a surprising outcome given that his public personality was openly modelled on the Jupiter theory. In light of current backlash he is making an effort to reinvent himself, so expect to see pictures of the dashing French President and his wife out shaking hands and kissing babies. Mr Macron has learnt the hard way that to be a man of the people requires mixing with the hoi polloi.
Angela Merkel – From ‘mein Mädchen’ to the matron of Europe
Angela Merkel has long been the stalwart of liberal politics in Europe, but following the worst result for the CDU in German Federal Elections since 1949 the seemingly immutable reverence she inspires has taken a beating. Although Angela is poised to begin her fourth term as Chancellor of Germany, voices of dissent from within her own party are beginning to catch fire. Critics include openly gay Roman Catholic CDU politician Jens Spahn, who despite being only 37 is waiting in the side-lines ready to pounce for the CDU leadership position. If the trend for younger leader that has been growing in Canada, France, Ireland and most recently Denmark catches on in Germany, Spahn might just stand a chance.
Merkel was born in Hamburg and raised in north Berlin by her father, a Protestant Minister, and her mother, an English teacher. She received her Ph.D. in quantum chemistry and worked for a time as a chemist in the Academy of Sciences until switching to politics in 1989, where her first job consisted of unpacking boxes for the Democratic Awakening party. The phrase, ‘we all have to start somewhere’ rings true for everyone! When the Democratic Awakening merged with CDU a year later, this proved a fortuitous for Merkel. In Germany’s first election since reunification the Minister’s daughter was elected to the Bundestag and in 1991 was appointed Minister for Women and Youth in the cabinet of Helmut Kohl. The reunification Chancellor took upon the role of Angela’s political mentor and referred to her as ‘mein Mädchen’ (my girl).
The once little girl has then grew up to become the leader of the wealthiest European country. She calls the shots in the European Union and the New Yorker has even gone as far as describing her as ‘The most powerful woman in the world.’ Her style of politics is hardly maternal, but she is lovingly beholden as the ‘Mutti’ of Germany by her own people. The term originated from rivals within her own Chrisian Democratic Party, most likely in reference to her dowdy style of dress and bowl haircut at the time. Perhaps matronly would have been a better description, at first glance insulting but upon closer suspection, surpisingly apt. It captures the staid and dignified manner with which Merkel has guided Germany and indeed Europe through its various crises; resulting in an even stronger economy following Germany’s recession and sustaining the EU through the Euro-currency crisis.
And yet, looking at the German Chancellor’s warm and welcoming response to the influx of refugees within Europe’s borders, maternal might be the most suitable description after all. For a short while at least, Merkel had the German population on her side, summarising political policy through the stoic yet uplifting imperative, ‘wir schaffen das’ (we’ll make it).
Merkel’s political brand is frequently described as dull and boring, and compared to the flowery, often laborious language of her world-leader peers, this may be true. But it is her distinct ability to pare convoluted issues down to the rudimentary parts that motivate the human spirit that has lead to her long span of political power.
That is not to say that chemist turned Federal Chancellor is not without her flaws. The conservative party leader’s leanings towards liberal policies reaches its limits on the issue of same-sex marriage, and for ten years her party blocked the passing of legislation for equal marriage. This year political obstacles preventing a Bundestag vote on the issue were eventually removed, with Merkel voting against. Countries such as Greece, Ireland and Spain might also see her as the strict, tough-love kind of Mutti due to her refusal to create mutual debt package during the Euro crisis. Instead a proverbial wooden-spoon was whipped out in the form of austerity policy, the state of which The Guardian has since described as being ‘in tatters’.
With the next political storm on the horizon for Germany, Merkel will have to work hard to resew the fissures that have erupted in her conservative alliance and to win back the voters that she has lost. Angela has braved many storms, she will survive this one too.