The Irish Times view on German politics: the Merkel era enters its closing phase

The chancellor is winding down just when her strong, stabilising influence, and her liberal values, are most urgently needed

A disastrous showing by her party in the 2017 federal election set the clock ticking on Angela Merkel’s leadership, and in recent days, after another reversal in a regional election in Hesse, it has speeded up. Photograph: Hannibal Hanschke/Reuters

A disastrous showing by her party in the 2017 federal election set the clock ticking on Angela Merkel’s leadership, and in recent days, after another reversal in a regional election in Hesse, it has speeded up. Photograph: Hannibal Hanschke/Reuters

 

For most of her 13 years as chancellor, a crisis, for Angela Merkel, was something that happened elsewhere. Economies tanked. Terrorists struck. Populists surged. Fellow leaders came and went. All the while, as shocks reverberated across an anxious continent, Merkel, like the country she led, stood in the middle of it and yet was somehow insulated at the same time.

At the moments of gravest threat – the epicentre of the financial meltdown, the height of the migration crisis or the aftermath of the Brexit vote – she projected a calm authority, acting as a force for stability when it was needed most. Perhaps her finest hour was the decision, driven by the classic Merkelian marriage of pragmatism and principle, to open Germany’s doors to one million asylum seekers, many of them desperately fleeing the war in Syria.

In hindsight, she was never more powerful nor more influential than at that moment. After it, her political fortunes began to turn. Merkel’s humanitarian gesture cheered many Germans but antagonised many others; her critics were quick to see connections between it and a number of terrorist attacks on German soil.

One of the beneficiaries was the populist, anti-immigrant Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), which had formed in opposition to German-backed bailouts for poorer European states during the euro zone crisis but now saw its chance for a breakthrough. The populist wave sweeping the West was about to arrive on German shores.

In 2013, Merkel’s centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) came within touching distance of an overall majority in the Bundestag. Four years later, in 2017, it suffered a historic disaster. Merkel managed to cobble together another grand coalition with the Social Democratic Party last March, giving her a fourth term as chancellor, but it came at a cost.

The AfD was now the biggest opposition party, and Merkel was diminished. That disastrous election set the clock ticking on her leadership, and in recent days, after another reversal in a regional election in Hesse, the clock has speeded up. On Monday, Merkel announced she would stand down as CDU party chair in December. She intends to stay on as chancellor until her term ends in 2021, but with voters clearly tiring of her and her government, there is no guarantee that the coalition will hold until then.

While some of Merkel’s authority will inevitably now begin to ebb away, her leadership at European level will continue to be vital as the Brexit talks enter a crucial phase and the bloc contends with the rise of authoritarian demagogues in Poland and Hungary. The Merkel era is entering its closing phase just when her strong, stabilising influence, and her liberal values, are most urgently needed.

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