Angela, the end

The Chancellor’s reluctant leadership in Europe has us hopinge that once she leaves the stage we may receive an unexpected yet essential boost to the european integration process

Angela Merkel is cheered by her colleagues during the CDU congress last December. After 18 years as president the Chancellor has stepped down in favour of Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer. REUTERS/Fabrizio Kensch
Angela Merkel is cheered by her colleagues during the CDU congress last December. After 18 years as president the Chancellor has stepped down in favour of Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer. REUTERS/Fabrizio Kensch

On the morning of 29 October of last year, after seeing her winning electoral margin cut by 11% in the regional elections in Hesse, Angela Merkel announced that she will retire from politics at the end of her current stint in office.

The first female chancellor (and the youngest in German history), Angela Merkel’s rise to the top has been unstoppable: first appointed Minister for Women and Youth, then Minister for the Environment, she subsequently snatched the leadership of the CDU from her mentor Helmut Kohl. She became chancellor at Gerhard Schröder's expense in 2005, and since then her popularity among the electorate and her party leadership has always been on the increase.

Up until October, when Germany decided to turn her back on her. The CDU has suffered a huge collapse, down to 27% from 38% in 2013.

"As Chancellor and President, I accept full responsibility" for the situation, Merkel admitted in her press conference. "It's obvious that we can't go on like this. The government's image is unacceptable." A real jolt for Germany and for the whole of Europe.

In 2021 a cycle that has lasted 16 years will come to an end, during which time the Kanzlerin has become the most powerful but also the most controversial leader in Europe. Flicking through the covers of international magazines over the last decade, the photos of the chancellor wearing Hitler moustaches or SS uniform are endless. In Italy, she is regularly depicted as a cartoon representation of the inflexible German decision maker. There is however a need to rationalise these rather knee-jerk reactions: a champion of treading water, Angela Merkel has failed to fulfil her promise owing to her reluctance to stand as a European leader and complete the European Union project.

All in all she's been in power for four mandates, with checkered results.

The bright spots.

In recent years, the rise of illiberal movements within the EU has convinced many to view Angela Merkel as a bastion of the liberal world. Certainly a rather simplistic mythology, but to a large extent true. The chancellor has acted as a buffer against the anti-European and sovereigntist right, even within her own country and her own government coalition.

She's never been tempted to flirt with the far right AfD (as her Austrian neighbours have… and we've seen where that has led them) and has been consistent in not shifting her political axis in order to pander to the neo-nationalist electorate. On the migrant issue she put herself on the line with her so called Willkommenspolitik (refugee welcoming policy) and with her “Wir schaffen das!” (We can make it), pronounced at the height of the crisis refugee in 2015. "I've grown up staring the wall in the face", Merkel told Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. "I'm going to make sure no other walls are built in my lifetime."

The dark spots.

The Germans have invented the verb "merkeln" to indicate the inability to reach decisions or take sides on an issue. The neologism was coined to refer to the behaviour her fellow countrymen believe Angela Merkel engages in during her political action. The Chancellor in both her own country and in Europe has generally speaking been too hesitant. Germany has never expressed a strong and decisive position on any of the major European issues: Euro, defence, foreign affairs. Very bound to the Realpolitik of her country's economic interests, made up of trade surpluses and careful accounting, the actions of the German leader have been neutral and at times ambiguous: a desire to move forward without upsetting anyone. A convinced pro-European in word alone, she has in actual fact blocked or dithered over every step in the integration process. In 2011, the Pole Radek Sikorsky, the foreign minister at the time, stated that he feared German inaction more than his own actions (an interesting confession, given the past of the two countries).

In particular, during the euro crisis and the emergence of the Greek question, Merkel revealed all her contradictions and limitations: the Chancellor, mainly to appease her internal electorate, has always relied on a strict regulatory policy, without ever facing up to the eurozone crisis by leading a political development of the European Union project: why not share the debt among the Union members and thus revive European competitiveness on the global stage? And what risks would Germany have ever run, if it had claimed and obtained the position of single European Economics Minister? Not to mention the beneficial effect this would have had on German industrial production, two thirds of which are directed towards other European countries, which would have been revived by the cutting of their debt to a European average that would not have exceeded 90% of GDP.

Today, Europe is paying a dear price for this lack of leadership and courage. True, the reasons for Merkel's tentativeness can be sought in the very structure of German democracy, which, after the horrors of Nazism, has been designed to avoid any possible concentration of government power. Furthermore, her national public opinion is fragmented and the constant internal crises have convinced the Chancellor to adopt the least divisive policies possible.

However, the time for caution is over: instead of being re-elected four times, if Merkel had accepted the risk of losing an election, but had led us all the merrier in Europe, would we not have avoided the populist leanings of these last few years?

Europe needs a long term vision and a system of governance that is capable of handling opportunities and managing crises. We can no longer base our policies on balanced books that do not take stock of the effects these have on the real economy. We need a new project, that might transform Europe into a strong political subject, capable of facing up to the upcoming challenges. In the coming months, the continent will be seriously challenged by Brexit, (which will mainly damage the British, who are fated to become bit players) and the threat of a new crisis of the euro (of Italian making?) and a wait and see attitude will no longer work.

Angela Merkel will lead the chancellorship until 2021, the PPE has let it be known that the farewell to the Kanzlerin is "a German internal issue" even if her departure will certainly leave a void in Europe, which must be properly filled.

Angela Merkel, in the meantime, in Germany, has passed her legacy on to Annette Kramp-Karrenbauer, now at the head of the CDU. AKK (as the German press refer to her) has made her debut by winning an election in her small state (Saarland), and has seen her popularity grow just as the CDU was collapsing in other Lander. They call her mini-Merkel, even though she's more right-leaning that the chancellor on many issues. Her future is uncertain. What is for sure is that the new European leaders are facing a very different state of affairs to the one on which Angela Merkel imposed her reluctant supremacy. The fragmentation resulting from the recent European elections and the growing ideological juxtapositions will make it all the harder for anyone intending to lead Europe. Now we need bold leadership. We won't get another chance!


This article is also published in the September/October issue of eastwest.

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