Angela Merkel, Europe’s anchor
German elections provide perfect opportunity for Merkel to lay out her vision for Europe and Germany’s place in it
Angela Merkel’s risk aversion is her strength but also her weakness. Photograph: Hannibal Hanschke/Reuters
Even though she drives by sight, Angela Merkel remains an insurer’s dream. After 27 years in politics, 20 years in government and 12 years as chancellor, Merkel remains a steady, accident-averse driver at home and in Europe. On her watch, Germany’s economy has performed a remarkable turnaround, with its jobless rate at a record low and its business confidence as high as its international reputation. Germany, a bringer of calamity in the last century, is today an indispensable anchor of stability.
Though she hates the comparison, Merkel is viewed around the world as an anti-Trump: a stable leader with modest vanity and a staggering capacity for policy detail. She is a woman who prefers sustainable, mutually-beneficial agreements over quick, win-lose deals that humiliate others. But an emerging new world order has placed Germany in a demanding, unfamiliar and uncomfortable role as leader and referee between the US and China, Russia and Ukraine, in the Syria and Turkey crises.
Barring major upsets, a fourth Merkel term seems certain in next month’s election. After a brief early rally, the centre-left SPD is 15 percentage points behind, its leader Martin Schulz pushing a centrist manifesto topped with a few leftist sprinkles that offers Germans no compelling reason to change their chancellor. With another grand coalition as backup option, Merkel’s CDU needs only a small electoral boost for a return to her 2009-13 alliance with the revived liberal Free Democrats (FDP). Another, less likely option: an untested coalition with the Green Party.
The far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) is likely to enter the Bundestag, but its drop to single digit support reflects the dwindling refugee crisis that dented but didn’t shatter Merkel’s political no-claims bonus.
The weeks before the September 24 poll provide the perfect opportunity for Merkel to lay out her vision for Europe and Germany’s place in it. Better than most she knows the perils and expectations attached to German leadership in Europe. Merkel’s mentor, the late Helmut Kohl, taught her that Germany must never press ahead alone. But European partners are in short supply. After a lost decade in Paris, the new French president is her last hope to deliver on reforms that would allow her sell German voters the idea of a deeper European – and eurozone – integration.
Angela Merkel’s risk aversion is her strength but also her weakness. Two grand coalition terms have left Germany with a balanced budget and a huge trade surplus but, paradoxically, a decaying infrastructure. Given the post-crisis EU’s crumbling solidarity, however, its indispensable leader owes the continent a coherent European plan that packs an emotional punch, recommits the committed, takes a pop at the populists and braces the union for the post-Brexit era.