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Europe after Merkel

PRINCETON – Next year, Germany will hold a federal election, and the new Bundestag will choose the country’s next chancellor. Whether or not Angela Merkel retains the role – at the moment, things are not looking good for her or her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) – one thing is certain: Germany’s chancellor will no longer be de facto Chancellor of Europe. That will profoundly change how Europe works – some of it for the better. But the disruption could be nasty.

It was not inevitable that a German chancellor would assert so much authority over the European Union. It was former Chancellor Helmut Kohl who made it so. After overseeing German unification in 1989-1990, he began to pursue what he viewed as his historical task of unifying Europe as well. Kohl led Europe, from agreement on the Maastricht Treaty in 1991 to critical decisions about the shape of the euro in 1998.

The concept of a common European currency could have died many times during those years. Kohl’s close associate Wolfgang Schäuble, who is now Germany’s finance minister, asserted in 1994 that only five countries – not including Italy – were ready to adopt the single currency. But Kohl pushed on, insisting that Italy be included.

Kohl’s successor, Gerhard Schröder, took a very different approach. Lacking any personal memories of World War II, he – like a growing share of Germans at the time – was confident that Germany could rely on itself, without continually reaffirming its ties to Europe.