What the departure of Angela Merkel could mean for Europe

Could the era of Germany’s first female chancellor end sooner than planned? Merkel’s departure — whenever it occurs — shouldn’t trigger drama for liberal Europe, but instead could be a chance for a rebirth, writes Christine Keilholz.

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May 23, 2019
German Chancellor Angela Merkel pictured at the Chancellery in Berlin, March 13, 2019. REUTERS/Annegret Hilse

Angela Merkel has repeatedly said she wants to remain chancellor of Germany until 2021, when the next Bundestag will be elected. But what if she does not?

Speculation of a possible Merkel exit has been spreading in recent weeks. Merkel’s party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), has scheduled a meeting of its top officials to take place shortly after the European Parliament elections, which run May 23-26. There’s a lot to talk about for Germany’s ruling party. In the polls, it has slipped below 30 percent, and the elections may not turn out well for the CDU. Could Merkel resign sooner than we thought?

The 64-year-old German chancellor has become the face of the European Union, as the French are busy with social protests that have been raging for months and the United Kingdom is struggling to negotiate its leave of the group.

When Merkel resigned as her party leader last fall, many around the world were alarmed. She announced then that she would not run again in the next elections in 2021. This was the first clear date for the end of the Merkel era.

Since then, lamentations have been sung of this “historical giant,” as an Italian paper called her, even by those who take issue with a strong Germany in the middle of the EU. France’s President Emmanuel Macron, for example, said he is worried about losing a companion against right-wing forces coming up all over the continent.

Merkel’s withdrawal — be it in coming months or in 2021 — doesn’t mean the lights go out in Europe, however. Instead, her departure opens the door for a rebirth of the union as a more democratic community of countries. The pastor's daughter from East Germany is admired for her calm, reliability and ability to execute informed decisions. But she also represents the kind of Europe that many Europeans are tired of — the kind in which the leaders of the powerful member states, especially Merkel, make decisions in informal meetings, often bypassing the elected European Parliament.

Chief of the most populous member country and largest economy, Merkel has acquired an image as a preserver of stability. Being in office since 2005, longer than any other major world leader, makes her seem like a rare stoic motherly figure in politics. Here’s someone who knows everyone in Europe, and all the tricks of how to negotiate at a European level as well.

Merkel’s reputation as a problem solver comes from all the challenges European states have faced since she became chancellor nearly 14 years ago. The 2008 financial crisis spawned into a crisis over Greece in 2010 and resulted in bailouts, where much money was distributed in informal sessions by the heads of the Eurozone members. The Germans had the money the Greeks needed badly, so it was Merkel’s task to form an alliance of donors. Quick decisions were needed, for which the EU Parliament and Commission seemed too cumbersome.

During the geopolitical conflict over Ukraine, which began in 2013, happenings in Berlin and Paris were considered more significant than those in Brussels, revealing friction between members over their approach to Russia.

"Merkel represents the kind of Europe that many are tired of — in which leaders of the powerful member states make decisions in informal meetings."

A decisive turning point in Merkel’s term of office was the European refugee crisis, which revealed cracks in the union. When Merkel let refugees from Budapest come to Germany in September 2015, it was interpreted by some countries as a gesture of humanity given on behalf of the other 27 partner countries. Other countries took it as a coercive measure by which powerful Germany made them susceptible to unwelcome immigration.

It was in fact Merkel’s attempt to recognize and adhere to a Europe without internal borders. Many of the EU’s current problems are related to migration. Effective protection of Europe’s external borders has failed until now due to lack of cooperation between the 28 club members. Resentment over immigration was considered to be a factor in the Brexit vote in 2016. It is also the cause of a split between Western and Eastern Europe, where new member states — especially those coming from behind the Iron Curtain, like Hungary and Poland — still dream of ethnically pure societies without immigrants. But even in Germany, many don’t understand Merkel’s refugee strategy, and have caused her party painful electoral losses.

The 2016 deal with Turkey was meant to cut off refugee flightlines in return for money from the EU. The deal did diminished the stream drastically but this highly controversial agreement left in the general population’s memory images, taken in 2015, of Merkel and Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the autocratic president of Turkey, sitting next to each other on golden thrones.

Divisions aside, Merkel has undoubtedly changed the appearance of the EU. Before her, pictures of European leaders showed groups of men in black suits. With her came a woman wearing a coloured blazer, standing in the middle, smiling. Outward appearance aside, her approach to governance has also been different from other European leaders. “All the governments she has led were pro-European,” Peter Becker, from the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin, told OpenCanada. Her pro-European policies were “not about hollowing out, weakening or splitting the Union.”

In Germany, Merkel, with her unboastful style of governance, has softened the image of the bureaucratic monster in Brussels. Her worldwide popularity is far higher than any other leader’s. A 2018 survey by the Pew Research Institute in 25 countries revealed that 52 percent of people questioned have confidence in her — twice as much as the percentage of those who have confidence in US President Donald Trump. Who else could stand up against Trump in a world where the US is breaking out of the Western phalanx?

However, her popularity does not make Europeans feel less uneasy about the cracks in the EU architecture. And Merkel may never have had a strong vision of where Europe could go in the future. “In recent years, not a single significant European policy initiative has emanated from her,” political scientist Edgar Grande told OpenCanada.

Dealing with the imperfect system the EU has turned out to be is something she has been good at. But that won’t be enough for the future of the union. Something has to change — Europe must make it clear to its citizens what unity is good for, and it must give them the opportunity to have a say. Merkel’s withdrawal may be a suitable opportunity for that kind of change.

France’s Macron realized this when Merkel did not reply directly his big European reform proposal in March. He appears to be committed to making the EU a powerful representation for all who are opposed to climate change, immigration and the power of internet corporations. Yet Merkel let the opportunity pass. It was another sign that, although her withdrawal will undoubtedly be a turning point for the EU, it may not be a tragedy, despite all the lamentations.