Auf Wiedersehen: Angela Merkel still standing as leaders bow out

The German chancellor faces an uncertain year and plotting by a conservative CDU cabal

Another one down: Angela Merkel with soon-to-gone French president François Hollande  in Berlin on Tuesday. Photograph: Reuters/Fabrizio Bensch

Another one down: Angela Merkel with soon-to-gone French president François Hollande in Berlin on Tuesday. Photograph: Reuters/Fabrizio Bensch

 

When Angela Merkel looks around the Brussels summit table on Thursday after a particularly brutal political year, the uppermost thought in her mind may well be: “Who’s next?”

Austria, Britain and Italy have all lost their leaders in 2016 after votes with an anti-establishment common denominator. And, on Tuesday in Berlin, the chancellor welcomed another leader not long for this political world: French president François Hollande.

After deciding not to run for re-election next year, Hollande knows he is now political foie gras.

But Merkel went through the motions anyway, telling journalists that Berlin and Paris would use the end-of-year summit to “exert pressure” to reach quick agreement on a so-far elusive European asylum system.

“We are living in a fragile situation,” Merkel said. She could have been referring to her political class.

Wearing a muddy brown jacket and a stricken expression, the German leader was so distracted she forgot to shake hands with Hollande for photographers.

Duel citizenship demand

It’s understandable that Merkel is preoccupied, given the shadow hanging over her re-election last week as leader of her Christian Democratic Union (CDU).

Despite polling just shy of 90 per cent, the result was soured by a motion from rebellious party conservatives, subsequently embraced by a narrow majority of delegates, demanding an end to dual citizenship for non-EU nationals in Germany.

Merkel dismissed the vote as symbol politics sending the “wrong” signal. But for whom?

Some in Berlin have welcomed the mini-rebellion as the overdue end to an artificial coma in the CDU since it entered office in 2005, where any criticism of the leader was viewed as treachery.

Merkel loyalists, meanwhile, try a little too hard to play down the consequences of the dual citizenship vote, saying it is nothing compared to the heaves all other German party leaders experience at their own party conferences.

But the truth is that no one knows for sure whether the CDU is merely returning to the good old days, of pitched battles between conservatives and centrists, or whether, facing a new challenge from the far-right Alternative für Deutschland, something new is happening in the CDU. Something Angela Merkel might not have under her control.

Looking for answers, all eyes are on the conservative cabal who disrupted the CDU conference with demands for swifter deportations and a burka ban. The dual citizenship vote was their greatest victory, however, catching off guard the chancellor, who has survived as CDU leader for 16 years by finding out about surprises long before they happen.

The Wolfgang factor

The most interesting element of the CDU conservative cabal is its common denominator: finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble. Two leading lights of the CDU conservative push are Jens Spahn, deputy finance minister under Schäuble, and Thomas Strobl, his son-in-law.

Many of their hardline party conference motions came from the pen of Martin Jäger, a Strobl aide who until recently was Schäuble’s trusted spokesman.

Some 17 years after being shafted by Merkel for the CDU leadership, Schäuble has never been openly disloyal to his boss. Of late, though, he has attacked her open-door refugee strategy as a serious strategic error.

Unlike anyone else in Berlin, the 74 year-old commands a vast network of former aides, from the chancellor’s chief-of-staff to spy chiefs, an informal network known as the “Schäublies”.

Says one former employee: “Schäuble craves intelligence, but he has never yet used his network to influence political decisions.”

As Angela Merkel enters an uncertain election year, she is wondering whether the finance minister has now activated his “Schäublies” sleeper cell to do just that.