All things must come to an end and that includes political eras. The Merkel Era is drawing to a close. Germany and Europe are anxiously peering ahead into an ambiguous future. Regrettably for them, the Merkel Era does not seem to be going gently into that good night. Instead of a quick death, it appears destined to linger for an extended period of time before dying off. Its current status is comparable to a patient entering hospice care. The end is inevitable, and family members have gathered around to say goodbye, though no one is certain when that will be. And, to quote Tom Petty, ‘the waiting is the hardest part.’
Germany is in a period of political stasis. Politicians, and political parties alike have been behaving out of character since Angela Merkel’s fortunes took a turn for the worse. Nobody wants to join a coalition government chaired by the chancellor. Her efforts to build a coalition have been rebuffed and stonewalled by friend and foe alike. The Free Democrats (FDP) stepped away and are now pursuing their own path to power, while the Social Democrats (SPD) have been carping over the details so much they have made it readily apparent that they want nothing to do with a Merkel-built coalition. Eventually, a coalition will be formed and Merkel will be the head of it, but she might do more harm than good. Her political capital has been exhausted and the September elections made it clear that a significant number of Germans want to move away from Merkelism. She may not cede power for another year or two, but German politicians are already positioning themselves for the post-Merkel Era future.
The European Union is in an even more delicate position. The political crisis in Germany has stopped the EU agenda dead in its tracks. Efforts to figure out the shape institutional reforms cannot move ahead until the situation in Germany resolves itself. France’s president Emanuel Macron has his own set of ideas, and reforms which he would like to be considered. Unfortunately, the EU is reluctant to even begin discussing Macron’s ideas until the German situation resolves itself. In other words, the EU is not going to be making consequential decisions, or moving forward on major issues without Germany. With or without Angela Merkel in power, Germany continues to be central to all things Europe in the eyes of the EU. It’s unclear if this will remain true as the political fortunes of Emanuel Macron rise, but at present, most in the EU appear reluctant to rock the boat.
Even with the Merkel Era waning away, and the current German government adopting a caretaker status, Germany remains the undisputed Godfather of the continent.
France and Germany are calling for a ceasefire in the eastern Ukraine as fighting has flared up in the region this month. Following a conference call between French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and the leaders of Ukraine and Russia, the two Western leaders released a statement calling for both sides to withdraw their forces from the disputed areas in the east. They also warned of an impending humanitarian catastrophe if conditions do not change soon. The German government claimed on Monday night that the four parties have agreed on a number of “immediate measures” in the conflict. If this translates to concrete action on the ground or not remains to be seen.
Fighting in the Ukraine conflict historically reaches a peak in ceasefire violations around late July and early August. This year appears to be no exception. In addition to the ceasefire violations, Kiev is claiming that additional Russian forces are arriving on its border. Ukrainian Chief of General Staff Viktor Muzhenko stated that Ukrainian forces have observed new activity on the Russian side of the border. Like the annual upsurge in fighting, Russian military activity near the border at this time of the year is nothing new.
The United States, by design, as well as coincidence, is playing a much more active role in this year’s Ukraine summer drama. The House is about to pass a new bill that will place many new sanctions on Russia for everything from its annexation of Crimea in 20014 to its attempts to influence the 2016 US presidential election. At the same time, the new US envoy to the Ukraine Kurt Volker indicated that the White House is pondering sending arms to Kiev to increase the defensive capabilities of Ukrainian forces fighting in the east. As Russia has been openly sending weapons, and troops to assist the separatists fighting in the east, similar US assistance for Kiev is a balanced response. Volker does not believe Moscow would view the move as a provocation. The Obama administration had limited US assistance to non-lethal military aid, which translated mainly to training, and the replenishment of non-lethal supplies like MREs, and medical equipment. The Trump administration seems ready to change that dynamic.
*Authors note: Part 2 of the Case for Military Action Against North Korea will be posted on 1 August. I have not forgotten. 😊*
President Trump’s upcoming visit to Poland ahead of the G20 Summit in Hamburg has made some European leaders uneasy. President Trump will be meeting with his Polish counterpart Andrzej Duda, will deliver a major speech, and make an appearance at the Three Seas Initiative Summit. The visit comes at a particularly sensitive moment in Europe. Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic have been embroiled in a standoff with the European Union over the EU’s mandated refugee quotas. The worry in Brussels is what consequences Trump’s visit to Poland could bring. Particularly, there is a great deal of anxiety bordering on fear that Poles will regard Trump in their country as a sign of support for the embattled nation. Deepening instability could result from that right when the EU is desperately attempting to forge solidarity across the continent.
The Three Seas Initiative is seen by Brussels as a move by Poland to expand its geopolitical influence beyond the EU. A worst-case scenario for the EU would be the Three Seas Initiative evolving into a federation of Central-Eastern European nations in the future. A federation effectively led by Warsaw. The concept is not new. Plans for a federation along those lines was explored by Poland following the end of World War I. The blueprint failed when Russia, and many Western European nations opposed it. Duda has invested tireless effort into rekindling the project and is likely banking on Trump’s influence and power to help it get off the ground.
The immediate worry on the part of the EU is the chance that the Poles will be emboldened by Trump’s appearance and Warsaw’s defiance will increase. Geopolitically, Poland and the United States have been forging closer ties recently. The populist anti-liberal order bent of Duda’s nationalist conservative government ties in well with the general platform that drove Donald Trump to victory in the US presidential election last November. Birds of a feather do indeed flock together, especially in the high stakes world of global politics. What comes from the visit to Poland remains to be seen, but the fact that EU is reacting with increasing concern tells us that it does not expect the end result to be anything good.
The French people have spoken. Emanuel Macron will be the Republic of France’s next president. Marine Le Pen’s bid to win the presidency fell well short of the expectations of her and her party. Whereas Le Pen rode a wave of Brexit and Donald Trump inspired populism, Macron’s own political position was made up of a pseudo-socialist cloak that differs little in substance from the current president’s own positions.
What does this mean for France? Macron is portrayed as a centrist and political outsider by the European media. In reality, nothing is farther from the truth. He has held government positions in the past and is an avowed globalist. His policies as president will reflect his pro-European Union slant. He will attempt to bring France closer to the EU and its sphere. At a time when other European nation-states are rethinking their relationships with the EU, expect France to go all in, for lack of a better term. France’s future economic and trade policies will fall in line with what favors the financial policies dictated in Brussels, and, to a lesser extent, Berlin. Macron will also do everything possible to throw a wrench into Brexit negotiations. He’s very much opposed to Britain’s departure from the EU and his position there will have a very negative effect on UK-French relations in the future.
In the security and refugee realm, France will attempt to reach a compromise of sorts between continuing to accept large numbers of refugees and strengthening the borders of France. Francois Hollande made a similar attempt and it ended in near disaster for the Republic. France became no more secure and ISIS-inspired attackers were emboldened by the lack of effective defenses put up by the French government. The string of attacks across France in recent years contributed greatly to Hollande’s plummeting popularity. Marcon needs to accept and understand that his own political fortunes are inextricably tied to his ability to combat terrorism in France.
The aftereffects of the French election will take some time to materialize. It is fair to assume that France and Germany will spearhead an effort to rally the European Union. Despite the recent victories by pro-EU candidates across the continent, the future of the European Union continues to remain unclear. Europe’s populist movement is by no means dead, however, it has suffered a powerful setback. For the moment, Donald Tusk, Angela Merkel, and Jean Claude Juncker can breath a bit easier.
Tomorrow, France will choose between two candidates and their respective paths. The path of Emanuel Macron is pro-European Union and built on the support of many politicians who are responsible for the mess that France finds itself in right now. The other path is offered by Marine Le Pen, a right-wing candidate with a message which has resonated among many working-class French citizens. Le Pen’s path is forged in populism and is decidedly anti-European Union. Truthfully, Le Pen’s candidacy bears a striking resemblance to Donald Trump in 2016.
It will be a decisive, and momentous day for France no matter who wins. The ramifications that will follow the decision will be felt far and wide from Washington to Brussels and Berlin. The results will also push many questions about France’s future to the forefront. Should Le Pen win will a Frexit referendum be long in coming? Or, if Macron is victorious how much closer will he move France into the EU’s bosom?
Macron is leading in the polls yet the former investment banker has had a difficult last week of campaigning. First it was a volatile debate with Le Pen where the infamous ‘France will be led by a woman’ remark was made. Then today the Macron campaign suffered a major hacking attack. It is unclear how damaging the attack will be, but comparisons between the Macron hack and what happened to Hillary Clinton’s campaign last year are already being made.
With the polls set to open in less than 24 hours, one has to wonder about Macron’s lead in the polls. Is it a genuine lead, the result of intentional under-representation in the polling, or because many Le Pen supporters are hesitant to reveal who they are really voting for? 2016 is not that far behind us and the debacles that polling data suffered during Brexit and the US election are on many minds today.
The wild card is the computer hack. France’s election campaign commission has warned that anyone spreading the leaked information before the election could face criminal charges. Whether this deters people or not remains to be seen. It is unclear how large of a role, if any, the incident will have come tomorrow.
For what it is worth, I would like to see Le Pen win tomorrow. However, even if she is not the winner, France has not seen the last of her.