Rethinking Europe

Must Germany Have Yet One More Top Job in Europe?

A German as head of the European Commission? If this is unstoppable, leave the German man who is lined up for the post in Berlin. Instead, send a powerful German woman to Brussels.

Takeaways


  • Merkel wants to see a man who has long served as her longtime political fixer installed as President of the European Commission -- Peter Altmaier.
  • A German running the European Commission will confirm yet again the widespread prejudice that the EU is a wholly-owned German subsidiary.
  • The EU Commission President has never been a woman. If Merkel wanted to keep a German hand on the EU tiller, she could put herself forward.
  • Merkel is the Queen Victoria of modern Europe. She has the experience, the contacts and the know-how to make Europe work. Leave the German men in Berlin and send the German woman to Brussels.

According to German news reports, Angela Merkel no longer insists to have a German as head of the European Central Bank. Instead, she wants to see a man who has long served as her longtime political fixer installed as President of the European Commission.

The man in the frame, Peter Altmaier, is an intelligent middle of the road politician. He worked his way up through Angela Merkel’s CDU party to become her closest aide and is now heading Germany’s economic ministry.

Born to poor parents, Altmaier started out his career in the European Commission. Thus, taking over from Jean-Claude Juncker would be a homecoming of sorts — all the more so as he is, to this day, technically on leave from the Commission staff.

After Walter Hallstein, the EU’s first head (at the time serving as President of the “Commission of the European Economic Community”), Altmaier would be the second German given the command of the Brussels bureaucracy.

Fearing German domination

But there are at least two problems: First and most importantly, a German running the European Commission will confirm yet again the widespread prejudice that the EU is a wholly-owned German subsidiary.

A German already serves as Secretary-General of the European Commission, de facto the No. 2 job at the Commission. Another is Secretary-General of the European Parliament.

The dominant European Parliament group, the European People’s Party (EPP), is headed by a German. The general secretary of the Party of European Socialists, the main center-left grouping in Europe, is German — as is the official who runs the Brussels T50 team that is handling Brexit, even if its official head is the former French minister, Michel Barnier.

So, it is difficult to see what is left for any other country in the share-out of top EU jobs.

The right candidate?

Second, there are questions about Altmaier’s political effectiveness. As head of the Federal Chancellery, Merkel put Altmaier in charge of defusing the 2015 refugee crisis.

Matters are admittedly a lot calmer in Germany today, but the damage has already been done. Altmaier duly went with Merkel’s decision simply to assume that all EU member states would take a share of the refugees.

This may have been the favored solution in Berlin, but – despite lip service paid by some countries – the proposal found very few actual takers. Even the countries that aren’t refusing more Muslim immigration outright are quite happy with the fact that so many migrants want to come to Germany.

Given the generous financial support Germany offers thanks to its welfare system, this is a heavy burden on Germany’s finances. Some top leaders in Europe, including Portugal’s President, have openly admitted that this can be interpreted as proper economic justice, considering Germany’s success in the eurozone.

Fueling nationalist politics

Still, Altmaier’s ardent pursuit of distributing refugees produced an anti-immigrant backlash which has contaminated European national politics ever since. All of Germany’s neighbors to the east and south now have ugly illiberal anti-immigrant parties in power.

Those campaigning for Brexit in Britain in 2016 used endless pictures of refugees arriving in Europe. The mishandling of the refugee crisis by Merkel and Altmaier was a key factor in their referendum success.

To his credit, Altmaier also speaks French, English and Dutch. If he has serious political enemies at home or abroad, they are hard to find. If he was prime minister of any small European Union member state, he might make a well-suited President of the European Commission.

A common budget for the Eurozone?

Altmaier would seem ready to move close to President Macron’s proposals for a common budget for the Eurozone. That is not quite Macron’s Eurofederalism, but a lot more common responsibility which Germany under the iron ordoliberal hand of Wolfgang Schäuble has so far rejected.

Under these circumstances, having a German President of the Commission who can sell this to his former colleagues in the Bundestag perhaps makes sense.

But for many, Altmaier getting the top job would provide further evidence of the Germanization of Europe.
The EU political parties will shortly embark on the process to select their top candidate for the Commission president job. Since Germany controls the EPP, if Berlin wants a German to be adopted as the main candidate to be Commission president, that is probably unstoppable.

There is an alternative.

Angela Merkel: The new Queen Victoria of Europe?

The EU Commission President has never been a woman. If Mrs. Merkel wanted to keep a German hand on the EU tiller, she could put herself forward.

After all, Merkel has long professed in trusted journalist circles that she sees her career in politics as not being done until the EU is fully stabilized.

That is an all-consuming task – and one that would require her full concentration. No doubt, that job could be much better done from Brussels.

Who better than Merkel coming to grips with her own excessive hopes for the political “sharing economy” she envisions for Europe?

She is the Queen Victoria of modern Europe. She has the experience, the contacts, the know-how to make Europe work. Leave the German men in Berlin and send the German woman to Brussels.

If in the process she finds that she has to clip her wings, that would do much to provide a better political balance throughout the EU.

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About Denis MacShane

Denis MacShane is a Contributing Editor at The Globalist. He was the UK's Minister for Europe from 2002 to 2005 — and is the author of “Brexit No Exit: Why Britain Won’t Leave Europe.” [London]. Follow him @DenisMacShane

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