Hegemon or political dwarf? Germany in the age of Emmanuel Macron
 Angela Merkel’s hold over Brussels could be waning

 Mehreen Khan

 Under Angela Merkel's leadership, Germany has been Europe's 'patron', but Emmanuel Macron's presidency signals a new era in Brussels © AFP

Arriving in Brussels this year as the Financial Times’ new EU correspondent, there was one tip I was given several times: the Germans are the key to everything in this town.

That was early September, just ahead of Germany’s general election, and Brussels was awakening from its summer slumber. The advice made sense. As an outsider looking in on EU affairs, it seemed like nothing got done in Europe — on banking union, Brexit or anything else — without German consent.

Today, Germany is in the middle of drawn-out coalition talks. Angela Merkel, its chancellor, has another term in the bag but the composition of her new government — likely to include the pro-EU Greens and the more eurozone-sceptic Free Democratic party — is yet to be finalised.

In Brussels, the phrase “after the German elections” has been replaced by “after the German coalition talks”. But this is hardly a town on hold. Europe’s biggest political shift this year occurred in Paris not Berlin. Emmanuel Macron, France’s pro-European centrist president, has breathed fresh life into the EU capital, where he is arguably more popular than anywhere else in the world (including his homeland).

Mr Macron’s determination to create an EU that “protects” its citizens while forging ahead in areas such as tax policy, defence and monetary union has received a warm welcome in the European Commission, the EU’s executive body. His presidency is likely to announce a new era in Germany’s already complicated leadership role in Europe.

In the early years after reunification, the German approach to Europe was summed up by the term “benevolence”. Integration in the single market, defence and enlargement were in the newly unified country’s self-interest, while German support for joint European endeavours was vital in ensuring that the EU moved forward. As the academic Beverly Crawford wrote in 2007, Germany “has been Europe’s ‘patron’, in that it has taken on a disproportionate share of the regional burden of institutionalised cooperation”.

All that changed dramatically with the eurozone crisis. Europe’s biggest economy, and thus largest creditor nation, was thrust into a position where it had to call the shots. With German taxpayers on the hook for bailouts from Ireland to Greece, Berlin could no longer “lead from the back”. The crisis blew apart the notion that Germany could continue to be an economic giant but a political dwarf.

Yet the sovereign debt crisis created its own dynamic, particularly between Ms Merkel and her then French counterpart Nicolas Sarkozy. With the bombastic Mr Sarkozy at her side, the chancellor could at least indulge the pretence that France was running the show, safe in the knowledge that her chancellery was pulling the strings.

Now the French really could be running the show. Germany is being urged to follow Mr Macron’s lead. Joschka Fischer, Germany’s pro-federalist former foreign minister, has called on Berlin to drop its erstwhile caution and embrace the French president. And Jürgen Habermas, Germany’s most prominent public intellectual, has warned of the danger of “gambl[ing] away a historically unrivalled opportunity”.

Can Germany manage this shift from reluctant hegemon to subordinate? There are signs that the German establishment is already fighting back. Jens Weidmann, chairman of the Bundesbank, is being spoken of as a contender to become the next president of the European Central Bank. Should he gain the backing of Ms Merkel, it would mark a major change for a country that has traditionally been uncomfortable with occupying the biggest posts in Europe.

Others are unsure that Ms Merkel is the woman to steer Germany back to the age of benevolence. “We shouldn’t be fooling ourselves,” one former eurozone central banker says. “The chancellor masterfully exploited the crisis for her own benefit and her party, and as long as she is around how can you change any of that?”

For Brussels, the problem is not Germany’s domestic political flux, but the fact that Ms Merkel is at risk of looking horribly old-fashioned in the age of Macron.

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