Germany and EU will badly miss Merkel’s leadership
Come September, the political landscape of Germany, as well as that of the EU, is at risk of being dominated by a huge vacuum. That is when Chancellor Angela Merkel will step down after 16 years of steering the German and European ships, often through troubled waters. Merkel is not just the head of government in Berlin, but she was also until 2018 the head of her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party, the largest in the country. Hence it is expected that the next chancellor will hold both of these positions in view of the smooth governance that it led to, at least under Merkel.
With her personality and political savvy, Merkel has dominated the German political ecosystem to such an extent that it has not been easy for her to find a replacement to ensure continuity. An earlier attempt ended in catastrophe, when her long-time supporter Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, known as AKK, who had been elected head of the party in 2018, was forced to step down in ignominy. This was after a rebellion saw her party leadership in the state of Thuringia cooperate with the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party in order to install the leader of a small, pro-business party as head of the local government. Though she had Merkel’s full backing before this episode, AKK failed to control her party in anywhere near the same fashion as Merkel had.
A fresh election last month saw another Merkel loyalist, Armin Laschet, the prime minister of North Rhine-Westphalia, elected head of the CDU. However, within days of his taking over, polls indicated that only 12 percent of Germans wanted him to take charge as chancellor. More than 43 percent instead preferred Bavarian Prime Minister Markus Soeder as Merkel’s replacement. The problem is that Soeder is not from the CDU, but rather the Christian Social Union (CSU), the junior member in the coalition government.
While Merkel may not have a problem in handing over the baton of government to Soeder, it would likely raise tensions in the CDU as there are many other contenders who have been patiently waiting for their turn at the helm. Losing that opportunity to the leader of a party that is far smaller than the CDU would not go down well. The CDU currently has 200 members in the Bundestag, while the CSU has only 46. Thus, a very delicate balancing act is in order.
A smooth succession is vital not just for the CDU, CSU and the ruling coalition, but for Germany too. The country has stayed in relatively good shape during the ongoing pandemic, thanks in part to the stringent measures taken early on and a healthy dose of government assistance to help the economy stay alive. And despite the situation worsening, at least health-wise, over the past few months, the German economy continues to outperform other EU countries.
The challenge for Merkel’s replacement as chancellor will be to maintain social order. The last few months have seen increasingly frequent protests by Germans, mainly fueled by the AfD, against the strict measures to keep the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in check. The unrest is worrying as more and more Germans seem to be getting tired of being obliged to stay indoors and follow strict orders without any clarity on when life might start returning to a semblance of normality. The government, under Merkel and beyond, must handle this unrest and bring order to society to ensure that all the hard work done to curb the pandemic and keep the economy chugging along is not undone.
That may be easier said than done, however. Merkel is set to get a taste of her popularity and the CDU-CSU coalition will get an idea of what life will be like without her in the months to come, as six states head to the polls in March and April.
But it is not just the ruling coalition or even Germany that will find Merkel hard to replace. The EU is also going to miss the stoic chancellor, at least until another powerful German leader emerges.
For the past decade or so, the EU ship has been helmed by a close partnership between Germany and France, especially since the Brexit referendum in 2016 and the subsequent exit of the UK. But while Merkel has held the German position and policies stable and certain, France has moved from right to left and back to right again, as Merkel has seen four French presidents in the Elysee Palace.
A smooth succession is vital not just for the CDU, CSU and the ruling coalition, but for Germany too.
Ranvir S. Nayar
As the EU recovers from COVID-19 — as well as from the four turbulent years of Donald Trump’s presidency, which seriously threatened the bloc’s ties with its most important partner, the US — it faces other challenges too. Its relationship with an increasingly belligerent Russia, a mini-revolt within the EU from the right-wing governments in Hungary and Poland, and the question of its ties with China will all need handling with strength and calmness, which Merkel has adequately provided for a long while.
French President Emmanuel Macron could play his part, but he is facing a tough challenge at home as he prepares for elections next year. With the far-right Marine Le Pen a strong contender, Macron has been edging toward the political right, often blurring the lines with Le Pen’s policies. Not only is Macron going to be looking inwards until that vote, but his rightward shift is also unlikely to help the incoming German chancellor pick up the relationship between Paris and Berlin exactly where Merkel leaves it.
These and many other challenges and surprises are bound to ensure that Merkel’s staid, stoic and perhaps even boring style of leadership will be badly missed in Berlin and Brussels.
- Ranvir S. Nayar is managing editor of Media India Group.