Opinion: As Merkel steps down, what’s next for Europe?

Written By: Shraddha Bhandari
New Delhi Published: Jan 20, 2021, 04.17 PM(IST)

File photo of Angela Merkel. Photograph:( AFP )

Story highlights

Uncertainty in German domestic politics will have an impact on the EU as Angela Merkel passes on the baton

It is the end of an era as German Chancellor Angela Merkel steps down as the head of her political party after 15 years in office & at least a decade as the European Union’s tallest leader. Her term in political life has its shares of successes and failures, but what is agreed upon is her ability to build consensus, to provide the balance between seemingly diverse views and having the political clout, internally & externally, to get things done. As Europe struggles with COVID pandemic, recovery package, reform measures, and the threat of Euroskeptics and external challenges – her legacy will be missed.

So is Europe ready for a post-Merkel age? Where I desist from predicting doomsday scenarios, a leadership vacuum will definitely be created in short to mid-term in the European political environment. There are three main reasons for this prediction.

1. Uncertainty in German domestic politics will have an impact on the EU

On 16 January, Merkel’s party Christian Democratic Union (CDU), chose Armin Laschet as the successor to Merkel. Laschet is the Governor of Germany’s largest state North-Rhine-Westphalia and represents overlapping views with Merkel, especially on immigration, economy and centrist politics. The other major contender Merz was further to the right on issues of immigration, security and European reforms – so in a sense, the party has chosen continuity with Merkel's policies. The succession race, however, has not been as smooth. Merkel had announced in 2018 her desire to step down as leader of the CDU, appointing Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer as her successor. Things became tricky in February 2020, when AKK resigned, breaking the expected continuity and throwing leadership elections wide open. 

While by convention, the candidate for Chancellorship is generally the CDU leader, Laschet’s path to this candidacy in the federal elections of September 2021 is far from guaranteed. He is likely to be challenged by the CSU's popular leader (Christian Social Union), Markus Soder from CDU’s sister party in Bavaria & by rogue candidates like Health Minister Jans Spahn. No matter who replaces her eventually – they are likely to be more inexperienced and will have to spend time on domestic challenges and managing the coalition, as Merkel will largely remain in place (as the Chancellor) with reduced influence till September.  With the emergence of the Greens as a contending force in German politics – the next government could be of unity between the Greens and CSU-CDU. This is a combination never tried before in German politics between parties with fairly divergent priorities. 

Domestic preoccupation is likely to compel Merkel’s successor to put European politics' burning issues on backburner till at least 2022. In the absence of a German leader taking a leadership position in the EU (or trepid steps), no other European leader is tall enough to fill the vacuum. French President Emanual Macron will certainly try and has some strategic ideas – but without a supportive Germany, his attempts to build consensus in the EU bloc will be difficult. Plus, his political challenges at home will keep him embroiled in the run-up to the French Presidential elections in 2022. There have recently been some stress points between the German-Franco priorities and vision for the EU – for example, on the COVID recovery fund and these will have to be managed.

2. These developments are happening as the European project itself becomes more contentious and difficult to manage.

The recently concluded Brexit saga was the latest in a series of shocks that have highlighted massive divisions within the bloc – far-right and ultra-nationalist actors, Euroskeptics, authoritarian regimes, pro/anti-reform agendas, newly emerging forces such as the Greens. From the sovereign debt crisis to the migrant crisis, the divide between Europe’s North from South and East from West – Merkel’s experience and respect for her abilities has helped wither the impact of these shocks. At least a couple of other examples were on display at the end of 2020 when under Germany's Presidency, the EU was able to make headway on a landmark 750 billion Euro recovery fund in the face of staunch opposition from Poland and Hungary. Though French ideation and support of Europe's northern partners were critical, Merkel's persuasion also helped conclude a trade deal with the UK, an investment deal with China, and an upgrade of the EU's climate ambition.

Merkel has been criticized from several quarters for what has been termed as 'unprincipled compromises,' especially with the authoritarian regimes of Hungary and Poland. For example, the COVID recovery fund that critics say could be passed only after a 'dilution' of the rule of law conditionality as Hungary and Poland (under investigation for democratic backsliding) had threatened to veto the proposal. But these delicate compromises are at the heart of the European project and even though Merkel is known for pushing most crises to the brink before acting, her stewardship at the tipping time will be hard to emulate. 

3. At stake is Europe’s role on the world stage as traditional security and geo-political alliances are unravelling

Europe will have to redefine its doctrine of ‘strategic autonomy’ – a key element of balancing an incoming Biden administration's priority of 'containing' China with the EU's own greater investment and trade relations with China. The EU Parliament will consider a historic and controversial deal with China, agreed on under Germany’s presidency, but that seeks to effectively compartmentalize relations with China into two heads – business and labor and human rights. In the absence of a German-Franco coordinated leadership – 'rogue' leaders like Erdogan in Turkey could complicate the Eastern Mediterranean's security landscape. Relations with countries like Russia and Iran will remain complex. 

However, all is not gloomy – it seems that in the last few months, the hold of the ultra-nationalist, right-wing parties that seemed on the ascendancy threatening the entire European project has decreased. Some path breaking consensual steps forward have been achieved in the last year. Extreme polarization in the US, the difficulties in Brexit and the carrot of fiscal support has convinced even the most Euroskeptic governments to ‘hang in’ for the moment. But as the new German leader finds his/her feet that could take up much of this and early next year and its staunchest European ally Macron comes up for elections in 2022 – Europe is likely to be led ineffectively for the next 12-15 months. Could the vacuum complicate the massive recovery fund's implementation and the important nascent steps towards fiscal rule reforms – only time will tell?

(Disclaimer: The views of the writer do not represent the views of WION or ZMCL. Nor does WION or ZMCL endorse the views of the writer.)

Shraddha Bhandari

Shraddha is the Co-Founder, Intelligentsia Risk Advisors. She is an experienced hand in strategic consulting/intelligence, crisis management and risk analysis for businesses and international organisations. 

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