The president of Lithuania often says out loud what many in Europe are thinking. "Merkel is very steady; she can do this," Dalia Grybauskaite replied, when journalists asked her whether tricky coalition discussions in Berlin meant the EU was now in a state of uncertainty. The usual answer to such questions is: "There are always elections happening somewhere in the EU."
Merkel is still important
Of course, the German chancellor is a major figure in Europe. For the past 12 years she's been a rock in a turbulent world, a fixed point in every crisis from the euro to refugees. She has, incidentally, already governed in a coalition with the business-friendly liberal Free Democrats (FDP) during her second term in office. Long-serving Europeans remember this, and that then too the necessary compromises were reached.
And if anyone is feeling a degree of schadenfreude over the fact that Merkel, the strongest and – to date – seemingly most untouchable of European leaders, has now suffered a setback, such feelings are being carefully concealed. In the Netherlands, Mark Rutte is still trying to cobble together a five-party coalition; in Italy, Paolo Gentiloni is bracing himself for a difficult election; Christian Kern in Austria is likely to lose his, and Theresa May is still in office in the UK, despite being punished at the polls. Who's got anything to laugh about?
During the long years of her leadership, Angela Merkel's EU colleagues have learned that she is perhaps the shrewdest, most experienced and toughest among them. Who could forget the arrival of a focused chancellor at the EU summit following the Ukraine talks in Minsk, with then-French President Francois Hollande in tow, practically asleep on his feet. It'll take more than a mediocre showing in a general election to phase her.
Difficult period of coalition building
The most difficult phase for the chancellor is now, with the building of the coalition. She will appear at her weakest when reports of dramatic scenes involving some Green or other, door-slamming FDP politicians and Bavarian posturing filter through to the EU. But this is where the European agenda will work in her favor. In October they'll establish that no progress has been made on Brexit; in November they'll be dealing with social issues; in December they'll discuss the never-ending topic of a defense union – and by then they'll need to have made a plan for how the EU wants to proceed on the major reforms.
"One step at a time" is the message coming out of Brussels. No member state is in a position to pursue integration or remodel the eurozone overnight. Spain and Italy have problems of their own; the eastern Europeans are quarreling, Britain is politically dead. Merkel can continue to play her usual, sensible role: first we consider, then we seek a consensus, and then, in the end, we decide.
This gives her plenty of time to form a governing coalition in Germany. And once that's in place, the danger of the tail wagging the dog on the European stage – whether this tail is Bavarian blue-and-white or FDP yellow – also lessens. As before, the Chancellor will head the government. Unless, of course, one of the small partner parties gets too full of itself and commits political suicide.
Macron needs Merkel more than others
This interim period with a relatively weakened chancellor is only really a problem for Emmanuel Macron. The French president has leaned quite far out of the window with his big plans for Europe, and is under pressure at home to notch up quick wins. And Merkel knows she has to help him. However, the cornucopia of EU reforms contains enough material to fill the vacuum for a few months. Until then, the chancellor will have to let Macron's "interesting" proposals simmer on the back burner and encourage him a bit without promising anything concrete. But she's always been good at that.
No one will throw the first stone
At the moment there's no other major EU country that would seek to contest Germany's role of informal leader. It's far too uncomfortable, and it's a lot of hard work. There may be plenty of grumbling and complaining about it, but in fact everyone benefits from Berlin's sense of responsibility for the European project. If anyone on the world stage throws the first stone at Angela Merkel, it's unlikely to be one of her European colleagues.Barbara Wesel