Some of us students probably do not remember a time when Angela Merkel was not a figurehead in German and European politics. This past Monday however, the tables have officially started to turn: Merkel announced that she will step down from her position as CDU leader in December and that she is not planning on running for chancellor in 2021. Considering that she has been the head of government for the past 13 years and head of the party for 18 years, this seems like monumental change.
After heavy speculations as to what would happen after the poor results for the state elections this past month in Bavaria and Hess, this step still came as a surprise for many people Her leaving this position will not only have consequences for Germany internally however. It may also affect her internationally, most importantly her role in the European Union, where her strong reputation has been weakening for a while.
This perceived decrease in power is influenced, for example, by the fact that lately, the French president Emmanuel Macron has seemed much more passionate about the EU than her and has devoted more attention to it. Additionally, the troublesome coalition building process after the elections 2017 further illustrated her weakening position. Therefore, at first glance it seems the fragility of Merkel’s position and her uncertain succession will weaken Germany’s place in Europe. But will it really?
The two state elections showed the reasons to assume Merkel’s weakness. She said herself that campaign of the CDU in the federal state Hesse had been overshadowed by public anger at the Berlin government, especially because of the ‘fights’ within coalition. The voters’ frustration was also illustrated by the result in the state elections in Bavaria. They are usually a rather standard event, with the conservative CSU gaining a more or less consistent absolute majority. This year however experts called the outcome a ‘political earthquake’.
While this may seem slightly dramatic, Merkel’s ally, the CSU, suffered a historic loss of more than 10%. Additionally, her coalition partner on a national level, the SPD, didn’t manage to even gain 10% of the ballot. At the same time, the far-right populist, anti-Merkel party, AfD goes into parliament and other traditionally smaller parties profited from the loses of the two big players.These elections results showed clear evidence of the voters’ dissatisfaction with the status quo. Even if Merkel hadn’t been leaving, German politics doesn’t seem to want to involve Merkel and her allies for much longer. What is happening in Germany seems to follow a general trend in the EU, where voters express their decreasing trust in traditional parties and consequently radical left- or right-wing parties gain influence.
However, Merkel still is in her position as chancellor – all that counts on EU level. It was strategic to announce the step back now. This may first of all help the CDU recover a little, since it shows that they understood the voters’ message. It, however, also appears as if the possible successors were not yet fully prepared to take over, since the announcement came after she repeatedly said that she strongly believes that the party head and chancellor need to be the same person. And while Merkel’s secretary general Kramp-Karrenbauer, health minister Spahn, and former CDU politician Merz announced their candidacies for the position immediately, none of them would probably at this point be able to receive a majority also chancellor.
Additionally, now that the Merkel has excluded any possibility of her running again in further elections – making her less dependent on what her party wants – she may become freer in her decision-making on an EU level. She finally does not have the entire responsibility of holding her struggling coalition together anymore. Depending on who the new party leader becomes, there could actually be a more efficient division of the responsibilities. Merkel could focus more on things that are happening in the EU, such as working together with Macron on the progress in the financial union or giving more attention to the Brexit discussions. This scenario would be imaginable with her secretary-general Kramp-Karrenbauer, since the two women are known to work well together. Spahn and Merz would most likely cause more resistance and disagreement.
Even if the cooperation with the new party leader would not always work out perfectly, Merkel still has had the chance build up an incomparable network and status over the past years. This basis will not disappear overnight due to her (more or less) voluntarily giving up responsibilities at home. She is highly respected and appreciated on an international level by many of her colleagues. Just recently, a veteran center prime minister said that “there’s a completely different atmosphere in the room when she’s not there. Once she’s gone, Orban takes over.” Some believe, that she is the one “holding it all together” and that things will become much more difficult for the EU once she’s gone. The authority and influence that she has is a product of her many years of experience and not a result of the fact the she is also the party leader. Merkel’s position internally has been weakening for a while, but so far this did not have a significant impact on her ability to perform internationally.
It would, therefore be premature to assume that her no longer being CDU leader will have a considerable impact on her position in the EU. Her – and therewith Germany’s – influence will depend on who she will be working with as new head. It will also depend on her party’s general situation. It could be positive for the EU if she successfully manages to stay chancellor for the next three years, since this would enable a smoother transition for whoever will take over. This is especially important now that exciting times, – such as the final stage of the Brexit negotiations – are coming up.
In case she doesn’t succeed in staying chancellor, many of us will experience for the first time what it would be like without her. We should start preparing ourselves, – and the EU – because it will happen, maybe sooner than we think.