#Coronavirus and the ‘Merkel moment’ for multilateralism

| June 1, 2020

In January, 2020 looked set to be a decisive year for Germany. In addition to a seat on the UN Security Council, the country would hold the rotating presidencies of two key European institutions: the Council of the European Union and the Council of Europe’s Council of Ministers. The government saw this alignment as an opportunity to assert its position and vision on major European and international issues, writes Jean-Christophe Bas.

This determination was reinforced by the willingness of the new President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, a close associate of Angela Merkel, to lead a “geopolitical commission” more proactive in its approach to European security.

However, fine ambitions soon fell victim to domestic and international events. Despite a strong turnout of world leaders, the Berlin Conference on Libya was ignored by the two main protagonists in the conflict, Fayez al-Sarraj (head of the National Accord Government) and Khalifa Haftar (leader of the Libyan National Army). The final communiqué’s call for “the parties to redouble their efforts for the suspension of hostilities, de-escalation and a permanent ceasefire” read like wishful thinking.

Soon afterwards, the Munich Security Conference’s newly minted concept of “Westlessness” – a world no longer dominated by Western powers – left many participants perplexed. Faced with China’s rise and America’s retreat, Emmanuel Macron said he wanted to go “faster and further on the elements of sovereignty at the European level” and hinted at frustration regarding Germany’s reluctance to embark on a European recovery, which he considered essential.

More serious for Merkel was the domestic political crisis that followed the election in Thuringia in February of a Minister-President with support from the far-right AfD as well as the backing of Merkel’s own CDU. This broke a taboo in German post-war politics and crossed one of Merkel’s red lines. Her putative successor, fragile CDU boss Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, was forced to resign. Months of efforts to achieve a succession in line with the Chancellor’s wishes went to waste, and the race was thrown wide open and out of her control.

Against a backdrop of economic stagnation and the prospect of the German economy entering recession, speculation in Berlin swirled that the Chancellor would leave before her term ends in 2021. Many major media outlets said it was time for her to go.

However, the Covid-19 crisis changed everything, and gave Merkel the opportunity to re-assert authority in Germany and – above all – her leadership on the international scene. Germans have re-embraced “Mutti”, whose management of the crisis with scientific rigour, empathy and pragmatism stands in stark contrast to the erratic, dramatic and chaotic approaches of many leaders. In announcing precautionary measures in mid-March , she had the wisdom to stand alongside the Minister President of Bavaria and the Mayor of Hamburg, underscoring the decisive role of local authorities and her own ability to act collectively. During a G7 conference call, she had no hesitation in strongly denouncing Donald Trump’s decision to suspend US financial contributions to the WHO, and call instead for stronger international cooperation in response to the pandemic. Speaking at the Petersberg Climate Dialogue in April, Merkel said economic stimulus plans must place particular emphasis on combating climate change. Her voice carries weight both at home and abroad, and her handling of the crisis has put her at the top of the polls for the first time since 2017.

With Chinese and American leaders weakened by the pandemic and an almost total lack of leadership on the international scene, Merkel has a unique opportunity to be the voice of reason and moderation in the necessary reinvention of the mechanisms of international cooperation and the re-composition of global order. The crisis has created a “Merkel moment” to promote a new, fair and balanced internationalism capable of addressing the common challenges facing humanity, and appealing to everyone committed to values of equality, balanced development and dialogue and cooperation. This includes the major task of reforming the UN and laying the lasting foundations for a “Globalization 2.0” serving the interests of the many. The challenge is to take advantage of this moment, when the whole of humanity faces the same threat, to develop a sense of common belonging, shared responsibility and common destiny.

Although narrow, the window of opportunity is very real for Merkel as she takes over the Presidency of the EU in July. She has 18 months left to complete this mission and take her place in history alongside the leaders who 75 years ago were able to overcome their differences following  World War II and develop a vision to put the world back on track.

Jean-Christophe Bas is the CEO of the Dialogue of Civilizations Research Institute, an international think tank based in Berlin. The DOC’s annual Rhodes Forum on 2-3 October seeks to contribute to building a new multilateralism and draw up concrete recommendations to this end.

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Category: A Frontpage, coronavirus, Coronavirus face masks, Coronavirus Global Response, COVID-19, EU, EU, Germany, Health, PPE

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