Not long ago, an archaeologist friend of mine and I came to a striking conclusion: We did our intellectual work entirely backwards from one another. He, with almost nothing to go on beyond shards of pottery, had to extrapolate a world from mere fragments. I, blessed or burdened (take your pick) by the 24-hour news cycle, had too much information to go on; my task was to sift oceans of data to find what was truly important.
One way to accomplish this, and to keep oneself intellectually honest, is to occasionally analyze things from 30,000 feet — to look at a big picture of the world as though one were a passenger on a long-haul flight. This Olympian view has a way of separating the wheat from the chaff, the essential from the unimportant. Doing so now over Europe’s two great powers, France and Germany, starkly makes plain the big picture: This is a continent and (in the EU) a great power not fit for purpose in our fast-moving world. Incredibly, it will not be open for business for at least the next eight months. To put it mildly, this is not the way to run anything.
Germany is mired in glacial coalition talks following September’s car crash of a parliamentary election — wherein no one party received even 30 percent of the vote, while five managed more than 10 percent. By far the likeliest outcome will be a bulky Social Democratic Party-led three-way coalition, with the center-left Greens and the center-right Free Democratic Party as the junior partners.
However, for such a government to be formed, vast ideological economic distances between the parties have to be overcome; over the benefits of massive new green-oriented deficit spending, how much to further shoulder the overall economic burden of the EU, and the continuing merits of Germany’s traditional balanced budget. It is little wonder that bridging these gargantuan gaps is taking time. The general hope is that a new government is installed by the end of the year, three months on from the election.
Just as Germany is finally to have a new government, with the coming of the new year, France will be entering into full election mode. The first round of its presidential election is set to be held on April 10 and — in the overwhelming likelihood of no candidate obtaining a majority — the second round is set to be held on April 24, between the top two vote-getters in the first round.
An early October Harris Interactive poll put incumbent President Emmanuel Macron in the lead with 24 percent of the vote, ahead of his rightist populist rivals, talk show superstar Eric Zemmour (17 percent) and the veteran Marine Le Pen (15 percent). Strikingly, both of France’s traditional parties — the center-right Gaullists and the center-left Socialists — lag behind these three individuals, who lead personality-driven factions rather than established party machines. As such, and given the sullen and volatile mood of the French electorate, the outcome remains uncertain, though Macron (Harris predicted he would defeat Zemmour in a second-round vote 55-45 percent) remains the shaky favorite.
What is certain is that French parliamentary elections will follow directly after the presidential vote, meaning the new government ought to be in place by early summer 2022. Let us now take that 30,000-foot view and think about this afresh. This means that, from when Germany’s election campaign took off (early summer 2021) until France’s new government has been installed (early summer 2022), a full year will have elapsed. During these 12 months, the world has been mired in the historical crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic, replete with economic, social and personal dislocations of an unprecedented nature, all while Europe’s two greatest powers have been on autopilot.
The Sino-American cold war has burst upon the scene, calling for a decisive EU position over how to strategically deal with a rising China and how closely to ally (or not) with traditional ally the US. Not only has the EU failed to concoct a common policy toward China, it seems to have about three going regarding America, ranging from German mercantilist-driven neutralism to French Gaullism and Eastern and Northern European Atlanticism. The 30,000-foot view makes it plain that a common foreign policy position over this most crucial strategic question of the day is simply impossible if Europe’s two greatest powers are closed for business for the better part of a year.
The EU’s ablest defenders have always admitted it was slow, but in the end it made considered policy decisions, despite the actual historical record making this assertion seem more than a little like wishful thinking. But the 30,000-foot view makes it clear that, even if this has been true, given the obvious political risk crisis times we live in, the EU as an entity — with its already-creaking decision-making process — is simply no longer fit for purpose in our fast-moving world. Its two greatest powers are on an electorally induced holiday from history over 12 crucial months.