WHEN it came, it was everything and nothing at the same time. For over half a year Emmanuel Macron, France’s president, waited for a German response to the grand ideas for Europe’s future he had laid out at the Sorbonne last September. Governments rose and fell while Mr Macron drummed his fingers; the transatlantic bond stretched, and came close to snapping. When Angela Merkel finally gave her answer, on June 3rd, it came not in a big speech or a government statement, but in an interview with the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung (FAS), a conservative broadsheet. How very like the German chancellor.

The responses to Mrs Merkel’s interview were like descriptions of the same object viewed through opposite ends of a telescope. For those sympathetic to French ambitions, the chancellor’s offers were weak, offering only baby steps towards the strengthened euro zone Mr Macron urges, constrained by the same old German red lines about rules and risk. Others were excited by what appeared to be the start of a genuine conversation, after months of waffle and delay. Some noted that Mrs Merkel went into considerably more detail than Mr Macron on matters like reform of the euro zone’s bail-out fund. So was this the start of something beautiful, or a great big German nothingburger?

It was both, and neither. Consider the ideas Mrs Merkel offered the FAS. She supported Mr Macron’s proposed European military intervention force, widely mistrusted in Germany—but wants it folded into the ponderous EU structures Mr Macron is keen to circumvent. The chancellor backed a euro-zone investment fund, but on the condition that it remain tiny. She called for a centralised European asylum system in which the authority to grant refugee status would shift from national to EU officials, a proposal so radical that it has no chance of becoming law. Some see ambition in all this. Others, the exact opposite.

Mrs Merkel often seems to channel the view of her compatriots that Europe faces no systemic crisis. Germany feels rich and secure; if other countries are in difficulties, the remedies lie at home. Mr Macron speaks a different language, of urgency and “European civil war”. The euro zone needs action. Europe must have an intervention force limited to members able and willing to deploy assets, including Britain, not one burdened by minnows in the name of “inclusivity”. And Donald Trump’s assault on the global order requires a European response. Tellingly, it was French diplomatic muscle that was deployed in the (vain) attempt to squeeze concessions from the Iranian government that would convince Mr Trump not to abandon the nuclear deal.

Mrs Merkel may have more to say in the weeks ahead, perhaps at a Franco-German meeting on June 19th, just before an EU summit that has long been trailed as a milestone for decisions on the euro zone. Germany hates isolation, and right now, as Jan Techau at the German Marshall Fund in Berlin puts it, the country “is on everyone’s shit list”. Faced with the threat of tariffs on its car exports, Germany wants to negotiate a way out of the trade spat with America, but France and others resist bowing to Mr Trump. Separately, Germany’s security establishment fears the government’s miserly defence spending will place it in Mr Trump’s crosshairs at a NATO summit next month.

But it is hard to guess at Germany’s intentions. Where Mr Macron telegraphs his plans early, loudly and clearly, Mrs Merkel is reactive and inscrutable. She has not made a single consequential speech as chancellor. Her memorable moments are instead improvised: the selfie with a Syrian refugee in 2015 that came to stand for her open-door immigration policy; the declaration to journalists as she left a car in 2013, amid the revelations that American spooks had tapped her phone, that there can be “no spying among friends”. To add to the confusion, she has a habit of creating expectations that she leaves unfulfilled. She notes that Germany erred in letting refugees fester in the Middle East before they swept into Europe, or that Mr Trump’s unilateralism obliges Europe to master its own fate. But rarely are such words translated into deeds. The questions are simply left hanging in the air.

Après Macron, le déluge

What might shift the chancellor? Two possibilities from abroad suggest themselves: one French, one Italian. On economics and security the chancellor faces domestic constraints. Her centre-right Christian Democratic Union is on hair-trigger alert to block any moves towards a euro-zone “transfer union”; its coalition partners, the ailing Social Democrats, have alighted on scepticism towards military spending as a vote-winning strategy.

The new ingredient is France. Mr Macron says all the right things to please Germany, but also puts forward an argument it fears is right: that an unreformed Europe is exposed to destructive populism. That may be why Berlin and Paris are abuzz with rumours of a looming grand bargain: German concessions on the euro, and perhaps slightly less grudging support for Mr Macron’s military plans, in exchange for French agreement that the EU can negotiate with America before the tariffs are lifted. (Such rumours, admittedly, do not come overburdened with evidence.) Mr Trump’s tough line on trade and defence may be splitting France and Germany, but that creates opportunities for deals.

The darker scenario is a crisis sparked in Italy. The conventional wisdom is that the outlandish fiscal plans of the populist government that took office last week will further harden German hearts against proposals to spread risk in the euro area. This is certainly true for now. But if an Italian showdown with Brussels appears to threaten the integrity of the euro zone as a whole, Mrs Merkel will shed her caution and act to contain the damage, for instance by deliberately turning a blind eye if the European Central Bank turns on the money tap. This is plainly no way to run a fragile currency union. But Mrs Merkel has only ever acted when staring into the abyss.