Vidya Ram

Merkel’s exit could shake up Europe

Vidya Ram | Updated on November 09, 2018

Unifying voice: Defender of a liberal and tolerant Europe   -  REUTERS

With the German Chancellor not seeking re-election, the battle over the ideological direction of Europe will intensify

Ever one to do things on her own terms, Angela Merkel’s announcement that she would not be seeking re-election as party leader later this year, or run again for Chancellor in 2021, caught many observers off guard. Her party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), and its ally, the Christian Social Union (CSU), had just been trashed in regional elections in Hesse (home to Germany’s financial capital Frankfurt) and Bavaria (the largest German state by area). But contrary to the worst fears, both held on as the largest parties.

A full-fledged defeat in either would have made a Merkel departure — during her fourth term as Chancellor — pretty much inevitable. But she chose the moment after these regional elections — seen as a bellwether of sentiment across much of the country — to take a step that many liberals and European stalwarts across the continent will have been expecting at some stage over the next couple of years and dreading.

Announcing her decision at the end of October, she admitted that the Hesse results had indeed been influenced by rising discontent towards her governing coalition. She said she hoped her departure — after 13 years as Chancellor and 18 as leader of her party — would end the bitter infighting that had tarnished the centre/centre-right’s ability to govern.

The competition to be her successor — which had already begun informally — jump-started, with the potential to take Germany and Europe more widely in rather different directions. While Merkel has steered clear of any official endorsements, her protégé is 56-year-old Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, the party’s general secretary who shares Merkel’s vision of keeping the CDU on the centre track, following on from the approach that Merkel had herself adopted in recent years. She has stuck firmly to this approach, despite the pressures of the far right that have led others within the party to push for a move to clamp down on immigration.

The challengers

Earlier this week, Kramp-Karrenbauer set out her vision for a new chapter for Germany where “people feel at home here,” Reuters reported her as saying. However, there are others also standing who would seek to reverse this direction of the party — in particular, leadership contender and health minister Jens Spahn who has been a fierce critic of many of Merkel’s most progressive moves, including to open Germany’s borders to hundreds of thousands of refugees, with plans to return the party firmly to the right.

Another long-standing challenger (including from when she first took office) is Friedrich Merz, another fierce critic and rival of Merkel.

How long Merkel remains as chancellor beyond party elections set for December will likely depend on who wins the leadership contest: a victory for either Spahn or Merz would be seen as a direct rejection of the direction Merkel has taken her party in recent years and would leave her little choice but to stand down swiftly.

The battle for the leadership of the CDU comes at a time that Germany has been riven by vastly different ideologies and pulls as has much of Europe.

While it is the Alternativ For Deutschland — the far right, Islamophobic party — that has captured much international attention (and is regularly used by those on the right elsewhere in Europe to warn what the result of an open borders policy would be), this recent period has seen the rise of other more progressive forces too, such as the Greens, which have made consistent inroads as support for the major mainstream parties has continued to fracture (in the state of Baden-Wurttemberg, for example, the Greens is the senior partner in a ruling coalition with the CDU).

In addition, it is worth noting that a shift further to the right in policy terms (and particularly around issues such as immigration) has done little to further the cause of the CSU (Merkel’s Bavarian allies), which performed poorly in the recent regional elections.

Significantly, the SPD — the traditional party of the centre-left — has also lost ground, including in the recent Hesse regional elections, and has struggled to find direction since the ousting of Martin Schulz, its former charismatic leader.

How these varying factors play out on the domestic level remain to be seen.

Impact on Europe

However, what is certainly the case is how impactful they will be on the rest of Europe. While economically the European Union is enjoying a period of relative stability, it remains to be seen how well the reforms initiated in the aftermath of the 2008 crisis prepare the region for handling any future one — particularly given the vastly differing strengths of its economies.

There is also the battle over the ideological direction of Europe: whether it will continue to maintain the liberal direction proposed by the likes of Emmanuel Macron, with a vision of further strengthening the European project, or whether the right-wing, anti-immigrant, authoritarian approach being championed, particularly in the east (exemplified by Hungary), wins out.

Merkel, while cautious around some of Macron’s proposed reforms, has stood firmly as a pro-European champion and bulwark against attempts to change fundamental European principles. Earlier this week, the EU’s chief negotiator on Brexit warned that the EU project was under threat with a ‘Farage in every country,” media reported: a reference to the right-wing, anti-immigration British politician and former leader of the UK Independence Party.

The long-standing transatlantic alliance — a key part of the European order going back decades — has also been challenged, with the heightened tensions particularly between the US administration of Donald Trump and Germany (Trump’s criticisms of Germany have ranged from accusing it of failing to do enough for NATO to it being at the mercy of Russian energy to its support for refugees).

Merkel has also been a steadying and calm voice in the heated debate that has often governed discussions between Britain and the EU’s other 27 member-states as it prepares to negotiate the terms of exit.

Given these and other challenges going forward it is perhaps unsurprising then that Merkel has chosen this moment to announce her plans to step down, giving her successor as party leader to prepare the ground.

Published on November 09, 2018

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