BIPP: Germany after Merkel, and the murky path ahead

Max Hubbauer and Yiwei Wang, BIPP Interns

After a pyrrhic victory at the state election in Hesse, a symbol of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) of Germany’s incontestable power and influence, German Chancellor Angela Merkel announced that she will step down as the party leader and will not seek re-election in 2021. Politically speaking, Merkel’s 13 years of successful leadership in office have proven to be effective in navigating complex challenges at home and abroad. As the Merkel era comes to a close, however, immense uncertainties of the future political landscape in Germany and Europe have arose.

As populism sweeps across the West, Merkel’s departure seems to be appropriate for her party, yet untimely for German society. With the CDU losing core support in recent elections, it makes sense that Merkel stepping down could slow down the decline of the party’s influence. In Merkel’s own words, she acknowledged her government’s poor performance, even calling it “unacceptable,” and stating her decision to step down would “allow the federal government to function well again.” However, many speculate that the next party leader will have a harder time managing the polarization of German politics these days. The decision to open up the border and invite refugees in has been a particularly contentious topic and has unfortunately revitalized the Alternative for Germany (AfD), a far-right political party in the country.

With Merkel out, the question now turns to who will take over her job. Of the many candidates, Merkel’s preferred successor is Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, the party general secretary, who is running in a fierce competition with Health Minister Jens Spahn and Friedrich Merz, both prominent European leaders. Spahn and Merz are also long-time open critics of Merkel’s policy. Commenting on Merkel’s political legacy, Jan Techau, the director of the Europe program for the German Marshall Fund in Berlin, told The New York Times that “[Merkel] gave the assurance that Germany was the reserve power in Europe on which you could depend. While she made mistakes, you could rely on Merkel even if you didn’t like her.” The government’s power and influence is being hotly contested at home, but whether Germany could continue infusing stability in Europe is another pressing question.

Indeed, Merkel’s prominence in the country has long fortified the strength of the European Union throughout her 13-year reign, leading many to declare her Europe’s “de facto” leader. Her abrupt departure could thus have dire implications for the long-term sustainability of an increasingly-fragmented political union. Under Britain’s precedent, the established political order in Europe has never faced greater opposition in the post-World War II era. As the collectivist mentality that forged the transnational pact starts to lose its shine, the EU stands at a political crossroads. If Merkel and the CDU’s downfall is any indication, political upheaval is inevitable. But while the EU’s withering strength is certainly exacerbated by Merkel’s absence, its preservation will ultimately be hinged on her political successor. As Merkel would state with trademark nonchalance, “the times when we could fully rely on one another are more or less over, so I can only say that we Europeans must take our fate into our own hands.” With the mantle of Europe’s preeminent leader now effectively vacant, French President Emmanuel Macron now seems to be the natural choice to defend the EU, which will be no easy task amidst the current polarizing climate sweeping the continent.

Clearly, the individual future of Germany and the collective future of Europe is uncertain after Merkel’s exit. At home, she leaves behind a mixed legacy not only of political pragmatism and stability, but also of status and intransigence. While endearingly referred to as “Mutti” (German for Mum) by her supporters, her critics, now many, claim she has led Europe without any clear sense of policy direction, only paving the way for a surge of populism in her country and the precipitating collapse of the EU. Though her 13 years of dominance have instilled in Germany a sense of unwavering stability, a fresh face in the mix of an all-too homogenous political landscape can prove reinvigorating for democracy in the country.

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