Angela Merkel’s Long Goodbye
With the chancellor's announced retirement, Germany, together with the rest of Europe, is heading into a new period of uncertainty. A full-scale reorganization of the post-war German party system is likely, as are fundamental questions about the country's international role.
BERLIN – With Angela Merkel having announced that she will step down as leader of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and not seek reelection as chancellor when her current term ends in 2021, Germany is approaching a watershed moment. Since 1949, the country has had only eight chancellors, which means that Merkel’s departure will be anything but an everyday occurrence. Moreover, a change at the top in Germany is usually accompanied by broader political and social change.
Merkel’s decision was not entirely unexpected. Having elected her for the fourth time in September 2017, German voters were unlikely to give her a fifth term. People tire of leaders over time. Even without her recent announcement, it thus could have been assumed that Merkel’s current term would be her last.
But the ongoing transformation of Germany’s domestic and foreign-policy position is more important than a change in leadership. International ruptures are shaking the very foundations of Germany’s post-war democracy. Under President Donald Trump, the United States has repudiated the West and everything it stands for. On March 29, 2019, the United Kingdom will leave the European Union. And to the east, China has emerged as a new global power.
More broadly, the world’s economic center of gravity is quickly shifting from the North Atlantic to East Asia. The digital revolution, big data, and artificial intelligence are changing the way we work and live. And the EU’s internal crises have not just continued but intensified, while chronic turmoil in the Middle East and Africa represents a persistent external risk to Europe’s stability.
These and other developments have shaken Germany’s once-firm foreign-policy footing. For years, the country’s economic model and security strategy have both centered around integration with the West and Germany’s role within the EU. But today’s challenges require a new strategic outlook. The question for the next chancellor will be: “Quo vadis, Germany?”
Wherever Germany is heading, one thing is already clear: the transition from Merkel to her successor will bring about a far-reaching reorganization of the country’s party system. For decades, the center-right CDU (in alliance with the Bavaria-based Christian Social Union) and the center-left Social Democratic Party have served as the two great guarantors of political continuity and stability. But, like mainstream parties across Europe, the CDU/CSU and the SPD are now in crisis. The SPD has lost so much support that it may not survive; and while the CDU/CSU is still the strongest single force in German politics, it is facing a deep structural challenge.
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Since 1949, the CDU/CSU’s “sister-party” structure has routinely allowed it to secure the chancellorship as the largest party bloc in majority coalitions. But in an enlarged, reunified Germany with seven separate parties holding seats in the Bundestag, this arrangement no longer works as well as it once did.
In the years preceding Merkel’s first election as chancellor in 2005, Germany had been governed by a coalition comprising the SPD and the Greens (in which I served as vice chancellor and foreign minister). During that period, Germany underwent a painful adjustment as the welfare state was brought into line with the post-reunification realities of high unemployment and a new economic geography. At the same time, German foreign policy had to be adjusted to account for the country’s new role in the context of the 1990s post-Yugoslav wars, and to address the threat of international terrorism after the attacks of September 11, 2001.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall, reunification, and a period of high unemployment and seemingly endless reforms, Germans had experienced quite enough excitement. Merkel’s chancellorship was meant to put an end to all of that. Cool pragmatism became the order of the day. With the economy booming, it seemed as though the sun was always shining and the skies were always blue. Hovering above it all was “Mutti” (Mommy), simply letting things take their course. German voters saw little reason not to elect her three more times.
Now, the sunny days are gone. The emergence of a new global order presents policymakers and politicians with weighty strategic questions that cannot be ignored or deferred. Chief among them is what role Germany – and Europe – should carve out for itself in the years to come. A decade hence, where will we as Europeans stand, and what will we stand for?
Merkel does not offer satisfactory answers to such questions. With her consummate pragmatism, she has become her own worst enemy. Even when she has made great – indeed, historic – decisions, they have been based on narrow, short-term political considerations. Merkel’s phasing out of Germany’s nuclear power plants, suspension of compulsory military service, and responses to the 2008 financial crisis were merely tactical moves. The one exception came in 2015, when she took a moral stand and opened Germany’s doors to one million refugees.
Merkel’s approach to the financial crisis would turn out to be her biggest mistake. At the time, she opposed a joint European response, instead advocating national-level measures and mere coordination among eurozone governments. The entire European project has been off track ever since.
Of course, Merkel will be remembered as the chancellor of the “peace dividend” and, possibly, as the last chancellor of the post-war (West) German party system. But Europe’s persistent crisis will now form part of her legacy as well, and it will pose a difficult challenge to her successors.
What comes next is anyone’s guess. Much will depend on whether Germany, together with France, continues to pursue its European mission.