Amid all the crises and upheavals that have battered the European Union over the past decade, one fixed point has been the stolid, stable government of German Chancellor Angela Merkel. But, following the collapse of talks to form a new coalition, Merkel suddenly seems mortal.
While Merkel’s departure may not be imminent, her power is leaching away. And with Germany set to turn further inward as it struggles to form a new government – and possibly heads to another federal election next year – a hole has emerged at the heart of Europe, and France’s bold young president, Emmanuel Macron, will not be able to fill it alone.
September’s federal elections had already weakened Merkel. Support for her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), plunged to its lowest level since 1949. With the Social Democrats (SPD), her previous grand-coalition partners, opting for opposition after slumping to their worst postwar result, Merkel was forced to seek an uneasy three-party coalition with the Euroskeptic and liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP) and the Europhile and more interventionist Greens. Then, on Sunday night, FDP leader Christian Lindner stormed out of the coalition talks.
The way forward now is unclear. It seems unlikely that the FDP – which lost much popular support as a junior partner in a Merkel-led coalition between 2009 and 2013 – will rejoin the talks. While Merkel may offer the FDP further concessions, Lindner’s language seemed to leave little room for that, and the Greens say they are unwilling to compromise further. It also seems improbable that the SPD – whose popularity also plummeted during a Merkel-led coalition over the past four years – will reconsider its decision to go into opposition. If it did, SPD leaders would surely demand Merkel’s head.
Merkel may try to lead an unprecedented minority government with the Greens, but such an arrangement might not be stable or effective. The most likely outcome, therefore, seems to be a fresh election next year, in which the CDU may or may not be led by Merkel. But the decision to call an election is not hers to make. The Bundestag first needs to elect a Chancellor, which Merkel should be able to win in the third round of voting, when victory requires only a plurality. At that point, President Frank-Walter Steinmeier may call new elections if he thinks Merkel cannot lead a stable government.
It may be too soon to write Merkel’s political obituary. She has not remained in office for 12 years without a knack for wrong-footing her opponents. But whatever happens, Merkel is gravely wounded and her days seem numbered. Any dim hope of using her fourth term to burnish her legacy is gone.
Merkel’s passing would not be a disaster for Germany or Europe. The German economy is not as successful as many believe: workers have scarcely benefited from the country’s export prowess, public investment is inadequate, and its manufacturing heartland, which specializes in incremental innovation, is ill-prepared for looming digital disruption. Under Merkel’s watch, the economy has coasted, rather than addressing its mounting weaknesses.
Merkel also deserves a big share of the blame for the mess in which the EU finds itself. Throughout the eurozone crisis, in which Germany’s position as creditor-in-chief thrust Merkel into the driver’s seat, she did just enough to keep the show on the road but no more. She never tried to persuade Germans of their responsibility as an economic hegemon to fix the system fairly, in the interests of all.
Having dithered throughout the summer of 2015, expediency eventually led Merkel to play a much more positive role in the refugee crisis. Welcoming more than a million refugees was the right call. But her attempt to impose a pan-European solution failed, and she has now largely shifted the challenge of coping with asylum-seekers to Greece and Italy, relying on other countries’ border walls and controls to prevent refugees from reaching Germany.
Merkel has also been right to keep her distance from US President Donald Trump and to defend the liberal values that he disdains. But that scarcely makes her “the leader of the free world.” Germany remains a free rider on the European and international economic, political, and security order.
Nor was Merkel ever set to ride to the rescue of Britain’s beleaguered prime minister, Theresa May, in the deadlocked Brexit negotiations. While Germany has a hefty trade surplus with the United Kingdom, the integrity of the EU’s single market matters more to Merkel and German business than cutting a sweetheart deal with the UK.
But while Merkel herself may not be missed much, a power vacuum in Berlin is a blow for hopes to revive the EU. Merkel used to lament the weakness of Macron’s predecessor, François Hollande; now the shoe is on the other foot. Macron’s bold plans to reboot the European project are based on a renewed Franco-German partnership. Without a strong German counterpart willing to take the necessary political risks, he will struggle to advance his plans to reform the eurozone and pursue closer integration in migration, defense, and much else that is important to Germany itself.
If Macron is to make progress he will need to rely more on ad hoc alliances with other EU leaders. He may also need to double down on his ambitious plans to reshape European politics. Ultimately, though, the best he can hope for is that the interregnum in Berlin is relatively brief and that Merkel’s successor is more bravely pro-European.