This year, German Chancellor Angela Merkel did not go to the UN General Assembly too busy grappling with domestic problems, such as the ruling coalition’s internal squabbles. She suffered a serious setback in late September when Volker Kauder, who had headed the parliamentary group of chancellor’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and Bavarian allies Christian Social Union (CSU) for many years, lost in a re-election to challenger Ralph Brinkhaus, a relative unknown. The heavy blow made her wobble. The chancellor has relied on Kauder for many years and had campaigned hard for his reelection. The vote was generally seen as a slap in the face and a sign that she is losing the grip on her own party. Many believe that Angela Merkel has become a lame duck. The Christian Social Union in Bavaria (CSU), the CDU’s ally, is likely to lose its absolute majority for the first time since WWII on October 14, when the local election takes place. The reason is the rise of the anti-immigration Alternative for Germany (AfD), which is threatening Bavarian exceptionalism associated with the CSU for so many decades.
The EU reform is an acute problem for Germany. The issue is high on the country’s internal political agenda. Putting forward the proposals supported by voters is the way to reverse the trend and regain popularity.
In the speech Angela Merkel delivered on September 30 during her visit to Ottobeuren, Bavaria, the chancellor strongly supported the creation of a Security Council of the European Union on a rotational basis. The idea was first expressed during the German-French intergovernmental consultations that took place in June 2018. It presupposes a permanent presence in the body of the EU leaders, such as Germany and France, with others coming and going in turn. The new body will be an analog of the UN Security Council, with the permanent members making major decisions about the fate of the world.
Indeed, it’s hard for the 28 member states to take unanimous decisions on foreign policy. The 2009 Treaty of Lisbon established the “qualified majority” method – 55% of member countries, comprising at least 65% of the population when it comes to the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP), joint defense policy, the European police, space, energy, migration, etc. When the Council is not acting on a proposal from the Commission or the multi-hatted high representative for foreign affairs and security policy and vice-president (HR/VP), the necessary majority of member states increases to 72%. To block legislation, at least four members – the minimum number representing more than 35% of the population of the participating countries, plus one country – have to vote against a proposal. The right of veto remains. In theory, Hungary or Italy could impede the anti-Russia sanctions.
In general terms, the idea of a European Security Council was approved by France and Germany in June. The creation of the body will be included into the agenda of the EU summit on October 18. It could be finalized at the special summit devoted to the bloc’s reform, which will take place in Sibiu, Romania, on May 9, 2019. The EU national leaders will also vote there on President Juncker’s proposal to move from unanimity to qualified majority voting in certain areas of the EU's CFSP to make the bloc a stronger “global actor”. The plan includes three specific areas: human rights, sanctions, and security and defense missions.
At present, a unanimous decision taken by all 28 members is required to continue, ease, impose new ones or lift the anti-Russia sanctions. So far, all member states have voted to go on with the punitive measures despite the fact that some of them, for instance Austria and Greece, expressed their desire to lift or ease them. Each and every time the wisdom of sanctions was put in doubt, arms-twisting policy was used to achieve the so-called “unity” and “solidarity”. Today, Italy is adamant in its desire to oppose the automatic prolongation of the sanctions.
Actually, Chancellor Merkel has always espoused the idea of moving to another phase of integration under its leadership shared with France. Merkel and Macron both wish the process would go much faster. They want a mechanism to rapidly take binding decisions in place along with a common budget providing funds for CSDP. Whatever form of decision-making process is approved, Germany and France will call the shots. The UK was a challenge but it is on its way out. Neither Italy nor Spain, the next largest EU economies, is a match because of the debt burden and lack of geopolitical clout comparable to either of the two leaders.
At the same time, some nations, such as Poland and Hungary, are not willing to give away their right to implement independent foreign policy. A common policy is hardly possible as the attitudes toward Russia and the US differ. With the UK gone, Poland will become the leader of pro-US bloc inside the EU. Several countries want the anti-Russian sanctions lifted and the migration policy drastically changed. Eurosceptics are predicted to improve their position in the European Parliament and Germany may be led by another chancellor by that time. The process of European integration may be frozen or even pushed back instead of making strides ahead as the German chancellor wants it to.
This is a make it or break it moment for the chancellor. She needs badly fresh ideas and new initiatives to keep her position. Otherwise, her tenure as well as a lot of other things, such as anti-Russia sanctions, may become things of the past.