Macron and Merkel’s EU crown

They were touching pictures at the centenary of the Armistice, when Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel held hands in a gesture of reconciliation between the two former combatants.

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Mr Macron looked both respectful and a little proprietorial; respectful because he knows who calls the shots in Europe, but proprietorial because he is a young head of state with a future, whereas his German partner is a head of government with, by her own admission, mostly a past.

Days before the Armistice commemorations, Mrs Merkel’s coalition suffered the latest of a series of reverses in local elections.

That defeat prompted her to announce she would stand down from the leadership of her party, the CDU, this December, but that she planned to continue as Chancellor until the end of her term in 2021: though even colleagues think that an ambitious plan, and she may be gone before then.

But, of course, Mrs Merkel is not merely the leader of Germany; she is the leader of the EU. That is because Germany is the most populous, and more to the point the richest, country of the 28 currently in the bloc.

Does it, therefore, follow that whoever succeeds her, not necessarily as CDU leader but as Chancellor, will automatically assume the leadership of the EU – or could it be taken by Mr Macron, on behalf of France?

After all, that leadership is not a constitutional office, it is leadership by perception: Mrs Merkel has it de facto rather than de jure.

It falls upon the head of state or head of government within the European Union to whom all others naturally look to give a lead to the Commission and those other institutions that either run or are central to the European project – and that leader, for the last 13 years, has been Mrs Merkel.

However, the sureness of touch that won her such widespread respect in the early years has been a little flawed in the last year or two.

The main opposition in Germany is now Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), a hard-right party whose lease of life appears to have been strengthened by Mrs Merkel herself.

Her unilateral decision to give a million German (and, indeed, EU) passports to refugees from the war in Syria was widely criticised even by people not on the hard right; but AfD seized on it as an example of her habit of acting without consultation and without regard for the sensibilities of the German people.

There was already concern about the way in which she had put the resources of Germany at the disposal of the EU for bailing out the indigent government in Greece.

Aware of the difficulty this has caused, European officials, earlier this year, were keen to publicise a statistic that Germany had made a “profit” of €2.5billion on the loans it had made to Greece.

“Profit” was another word for “interest”, and the sum is small compared with the estimated €47.5billion that the German taxpayer has poured into Greece during its bailout programme, and which is yet to be repaid.

Those figures are important, because if, when he meets Mrs Merkel, Mr Macron is eyeing up the future vacancy for the de facto leadership of the EU, he needs to be aware of what it takes – and what it costs – to fulfil that role.

She has had this EU leadership not merely because for most of the 13 years she has served as Chancellor she had exhibited, for the most part, a safe pair of hands; she has had the leadership because she has controlled the purse strings of the EU.

She has been, effectively, its lender of last resort.

Before Mr Macron decides that he wishes to become the focal point of future European policy, he needs to ask whether France can afford it.

France’s contribution to the European Financial Stability Fund has been in excess of €30billion, and it has had about €1.6billion in interest payments.

However, the Greek bail out may not be the last the EU has to manage, and certainly not the last financial crisis it will have to deal with – events in Italy, whose budget the EU has rejected, have without doubt yet to reach their worst.

If France, where unemployment is far higher than in Germany, and where – unlike in Germany – the economy is not helped by a currency that is weak in relation to the nation’s domestic economic performance – wants to assume leadership of the bloc once Mrs Merkel goes, it may have to be prepared to put its hand in its pocket rather more deeply.

What’s more, nobody believes the Greeks will ever pay back the money they owe – something Germany would find painful to absorb, but France could find deeply damaging.

Like Mrs Merkel, Mr Macron has a hard right party as his main opponent too – the Rassemblement National would express outrage at any form of greater European integration, particularly an integration that sent French taxpayers’ money to other European nations where they signally fail to collect their own taxes.

When Mrs Merkel finally leaves the Chancellery, Mr Macron will be the more experienced leader of the Franco-German couple, but his country will still not have the economic clout of Germany.

For that reason Mrs Merkel’s successor – who, the way things are going for the CDU, might not even be from her party – will effortlessly assume the reins of EU leadership.

Mr Macron would be wise to get to know Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer – known in Germany as “mini-Merkel”, and the Chancellor’s own preferred successor – and Jens Spahn, the health minister, who is highly conservative and was a vocal critic of Mrs Merkel over her passports handout.

Either is more likely to lead Europe than he is: not because of any personal shortcomings, but because for reasons of culture and population, France still cannot match Germany’s ability to create wealth.

Column by political commentator and historianSimon Heffer, who is also a columnist for the Daily and Sunday Telegraphs