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Sunday, 03 March 2024
Auf Wiedersehen Mutti Merkel
Ian Black
Angela Merkel’s choice not to stand in the German federal elections on September 26 will have European and international repercussions as well as domestic ones. That’s only natural after nearly 16 years in office as Berlin’s Christian Democrat chancellor and the most powerful woman leader in the world. Only Otto Von Bismarck and Helmut Kohl served for longer.

Mutti (Mummy), as she is widely known, is most likely facing weeks if not months, of negotiations between the Social Democrats (SPD) and its potential partners. Merkel’s successor, the uninspiring Armin Laschet, performed far worse than the more competent SPD leader Olaf Scholz, finance minister in her government.

Her own CDU/CSU result was the worst in its history – just 24.1% of the vote. Still, the SPD secured only 25.7%. But it gained support in every part of former East Germany, including winning Merkel’s own seat on the Baltic.
That means that right now the sole certainty is that, for the first time since the 1950s, Germany will be eventually end up being governed by a three-party coalition, including the Greens (who performed impressively well), ending the traditional CDU/SPD duopoly in national politics in Berlin. Given the CDU/CSU’s dominance of postwar German politics, reinforced after reunification under Kohl in 1990, this rejection is really remarkable.

Mutti, now a caretaker, is on her way out, whatever the final outcome of the inter-party talks. Merkel is strikingly different from other western leaders, especially Brexiteer Boris Johnson and Donald Trump, who she detested. Germany’s chancellor has seen many colleagues come and go, including four French presidents, five British prime ministers and eight Italian premiers. Of course she has her critics – at home in particular, as ever, especially of her handling of the economic crisis back in 2008.

Before winning the top job in 2005 she campaigned as a “chancellor of change” to make Germany more modern, seeking deeper economic reforms and a more socially liberal approach than her centre-right party had previously advocated.
Yet Merkel, both at home and abroad, is generally seen as serious, pragmatic, a modest and cautious leader who never prioritized acclaim and was above all committed to building consensus around fact and science-based policy decisions. She has long been praised for her firmness and diligence. Merkel “beats her breast from time to time, but she does not boast,” as the British journalist John Kampfner has written. “Yet she has outlasted all her European and Western peers. And her place in history will be far more distinguished than most”.
For all her steadiness, Merkel’s long years in the Bundeskanzleramt have not lacked challenges. She led her country through the financial crash of 2008, the euro debt crisis that followed, threats from Greece to leave EU, the migration crisis of 2015, and course the Covid pandemic. On a positive note she welcomed Syrian refugees. She brokered a fragile truce between Russia and Ukraine, helped to negotiate Brexit and saw Trump come and go.

Overall she is judged to have neutralised crises, but without quite resolving them. The historian Timothy Garton Ash has described her style as “sins of omission”- avoiding difficult strategic choices. Even a senior ally characterized her unflatteringly as an “anchor of stability in stormy times.”

But her conciliatory approach to Russia, particularly over the controversial Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, looks ever more untenable as Vladimir Putin ruthlessly consolidates his control. Merkel’s over-indulgent attitude to Hungary and Poland has also been widely criticized, as has her complacency. Still, Mutti has uniquely decided to become the first Chancellor to step down.

Key questions for her successor – whoever that turns out to be – will have no choice but to determine the EU’s future course. Germany is Europe’s pre-eminent powerhouse, its wealthiest economy, with the most votes and the biggest checkbook. Global questions that really matter include: how will Brussels cope with the increasingly bitter rivalry between the US and China, especially given the importance of Beijing for German exports. To what extent will it embark on a more autonomous European defence strategy alongside Nato? Another difficult issue will be responding to calls for greater fiscal integration in the eurozone.

Given the nature of the domestic challenges facing the next government – from tackling under-investment in digital infrastructure and other areas to financing a fair green transition: the floods in July, in which over 200 people lost their lives, were a sad but vivid reminder that Germans will not be spared the perils of climate change. Over-dependence on coal and Russian gas will also need to be reduced. And how will the new coalition combat the rise of the populist far-right, although the AfD did not perform well in the elections? In the wake of Germany’s 20th century history that is a hyper-sensitive subject, for obvious reasons.

Germany may well be Europe’s biggest power, but international issues and the future of the EU were barely mentioned during the campaign. If he does end up in the Bundeskanzleramt in Berlin, Olaf Scholz will clearly have his work cut out on those two important fronts as well.