Angela Merkel’s withdrawal adds insecurity to Europe

German chancellor's announcement is a belated attempt to define her legacy

German chancellor and leader of the CDU Angela Merkel will not stand again as leader and will step down as chancellor in 2021. Photograph: Markus Heine/Getty

German chancellor and leader of the CDU Angela Merkel will not stand again as leader and will step down as chancellor in 2021. Photograph: Markus Heine/Getty

 

From Kohl’s Mädchen to Eurocrisis Madame Non, Angela Merkel has always been defined from outside, usually by men. But when Europe’s most powerful woman since Margaret Thatcher announced her political departure by degrees on Monday, it was her belated attempt to define her legacy while boosting her increasingly torpid party.

The source of their torpor: apart from winning elections , senior party figures in Berlin struggle to explain for what, exactly, the Merkel CDU stands.

Answering that question requires answering another: for what, exactly, does Angela Merkel stand? Stabilising Europe and defending the multilateral order are all well and good but, at home, German voters are increasingly wary of the CDU and its leader of 18 years.

From a near-absolute majority in 2013, her party suffered a historic disaster in last year’s federal election. Tortuous talks yielded her a fourth term but an equally tortured third grand coalition with Germany’s big two centrist parties are shedding support at an alarming rate to the political fringes.

The first alarm bell came earlier this month when frustrated CDU backbenchers ousted Dr Merkel’s trusted parliamentary party leader for their own man in the Bundestag. Two regional election disasters in two weeks – which polling analysts registered as a protest for one in two voters – made the decline impossible to ignore any longer.

Political choice

Ahead of the next scheduled federal election in 2021, the party of Adenauer and Kohl now faces a choice: continue Merkel’s centrist approach or shift/expand more to the right to neutralise the populist, far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD).

Between now and December’s CDU party conference, three, possibly four, candidates will present their visions for the future.

Two are Merkel loyalists and two unquestioned Merkel rivals.

As CDU general secretary and former regional premier Anngret Kramp-Karrenbauer – AKK to her supporters – is Merkel’s chosen successor. If her politics – socially conservative, economic liberal – or Merkel proximity prove a problem, another Merkel-friendly candidate may enter the ring: Armin Laschet, state premier of North Rhine-Westphalia.

A centrist figure, he has yet to declare but enjoys strong backing as head of Germany’s most populous state.

Their conciliatory, constructive stance towards Merkel may work in their favour, given Merkel intends to stay on as chancellor.

But that proximity could prove more hindrance than help in the face-off with the other would-be challengers.

Jen Spahn, the impatient, ambitious health minister, plays to the CDU’s neglected conservative base and, at 38, represents a generational shift.

But he may have met his match in Friedrich Merz, sidelined by Merkel as her deputy in 2002 and mourned ever since as the CDU’s best man who got away.

Merz, a trained lawyer, Atlanticist and fiscal conservative, signalled on Monday his readiness to enter the race, reviving a legendary feud with Merkel and challenging her insistence (as late as two weeks ago) that chancellorship and party leadership belong in one pair of hands.

Co-habitation bubble

Depending on how revolutionary they are feeling, CDU delegates could back Merz, burst Merkel’s co-habitation bubble and – in the most extreme scenario – sideline her entirely.

As would-be candidates begin running numbers and testing regional party loyalties, Angela Merkel can begin ordering her legacy.

She profited from reform efforts of her predecessor, SPD chancellor Gerhard Schröder, and steered Germany relatively unscathed through the banking and euro crises. But the latter’s legacy undermined trust of many CDU conservatives in the European project and confirmed their worst doubts about euro no-bailout promises.

Merkel doubters who didn’t leave the CDU then for the new AfD had a second opportunity in the 2015-2016 migration crisis, when more than one million people entered Germany. One half of Germany saw in this Merkel’s finest hour as a humanitarian, later hobbled by hardline European neighbours. But critics pointed to the series of asylum seeker attacks that followed and argued the poorly communicated refugee challenge exposed the fatal limitations of Merkel’s drive-by-sight political style.

Always at her most effective as a presidential, above-the-fray figure, this may serve her well in the months ahead – particularly as Brexit talks enter their crunch phase.

None of her potential successors have indicated any notable deviation from Merkel’s strategy to date: no Berlin solo runs, deference to Brussels negotiators and full backing for Dublin.

But breaking in a new CDU leader is a distraction and a new element of insecurity in European politics, as if Brexit hadn’t already provided enough moving parts.

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