Four weeks ago, I wrote about Angela Merkel’s departure from Germany’s, the EU’s and the world’s political scene. She had decided not to stand for the election of chancellor of Germany. In the meantime, the elections for the German parliament have been held with no clear winner. The likelihood is a three-party coalition and, as such, it is still uncertain who will be Germany’s next chancellor.

Whoever emerges as chancellor, after what could be lengthy negotiations, will also be expected to take on a leading role within the EU. However, there are two other contenders for such a leading role.

They are Mario Draghi, former president of the European Central Bank and currently prime minister of Italy, and Emmanuel Macron, president of France. One of these three will certainly be expected to be the leading voice of the EU on the world’s stage, as Merkel so often did.

Merkel has, for all intents and purposes, led the EU through two economic crises (which may have morphed into one), the surge in the arrivals of migrants, the pandemic, Brexit, and the rise in populist parties at both the right and the left of the political spectrum.

Whoever will be leading Europe in future has a most unenviable task

Her successor as the unanointed leader of the EU will still have to manage the political, economic and social impact of the coronavirus. One will also still have to grapple with the populist parties, especially in countries such as Poland and Hungary, who appear determined to challenge EU institutions while partaking of the benefits of membership.

It is now an accepted fact that the end of 2021 and 2022 will be characterised by higher inflation and possible rise in interest rates, with all the problems that this would cause. A crisis with the UK is always round the corner as the true consequences of Brexit emerge.

Then there are the so-called global tensions with China and the US seemingly headed towards a new version of the Cold War and chaos in the Middle East. The war on money laundering and tax evasion will be expected to continue with even greater force, and the challenges of climate change require a concerted EU position.

Whoever will be leading Europe in future has a most unenviable task. On the economic front, Draghi is probably the safest pair of hands. He proved his mettle when he was president of the European Central Bank with his famous words: “The ECB is ready to do whatever it takes to preserve the euro.” This earned him respect in Europe and beyond. He is also the most appreciated political leader in Italy.

Macron has often spoken of the need to reform the EU because it is “too slow, too weak and too inefficient”. He has promoted the digital tax and eurozone reform. However, neither of these two initiatives have gone very far.

Agreement has been reached on the minimum corporation tax, which was not his idea, but the digital tax is still stuck to the starting blocks. Macron also has a presidential election to win and the result of that is not a given.

The third person for Europe’s de facto leadership role could be Olaf Scholz. He still needs to be appointed German chancellor but he is credited with having steered the German economy through the pandemic and with having been a driving force in the setting up of the EU coronavirus recovery fund. Beyond that, he is still an unknown quantity.

Where each of these three persons will end up, no one really knows. However, the EU requires a statesperson like Merkel was. The economic challenges that the EU will be facing are not minor and we do need someone who is capable to look at things from a long-term perspective.

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