This is not the first intimation the world has had of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s political mortality — nor an isolated indication of the uncertainty that her sudden departure would leave behind.
That skiing accident, in 2014, when she broke her pelvis and was forced to slow down for a few weeks, was perhaps the earliest warning of her potential frailty. It also came at the worst possible time, arguably muffling Germany’s voice as the crisis in Ukraine was brewing.
Then there was the unusual difficulty the super-seasoned negotiator had in forming Germany’s current coalition after the last, 2017, election. Followed by those very public shaking fits — now apparently stabilised — which raised questions about whether her health would allow her to serve out her current, fourth, term. But the latest political developments in Germany could be the ones that really threaten her current retirement plans (bowing out gracefully at the next scheduled election in 2021).
These threats have nothing whatsoever to do with her own party, the Christian Democratic Union, or with her own personal authority — directly, at least. They concern an unexpected turn of events with her Social-Democrat coalition partner, the SPD.
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Under pressure since its lacklustre showing at the last election, and in the European and several local elections since, the SPD has just elected its second leader in as many years; members have shunned the favoured contenders, and choosing a left-wing duo of Norbert Walter-Borjans and Saskia Esken instead.
If this only represented a sharp change of direction for the party, that would be one thing. But one of the defeated favourites was Deputy Chancellor, Olaf Scholz, who is also Finance minister in Merkel’s government. The vote amounted to an expression of no confidence in him personally, and in the SPD’s participation in the coalition.
Now, it is true that there are a couple of factors that may help Merkel fight another day. The first is that any co-leadership has a tendency to be less stable than the conventional kind. So she might just be able to wait it out — something she is pretty good at. (Meanwhile, the relatively new CDU leader, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, has insisted that her party stand by the coalition.) The second is that, because of its poor performance in 2017, the SPD is more of a junior partner than it was in either of Merkel’s previous two “grand coalition” governments — and it has not improved its electoral showings since.
On the other hand, however, renegotiating the terms of the coalition was a central plank of the new SPD leadership proposals, for which they now have a mandate, and the words of their co-leader, Walter-Borjans, sounded pretty uncompromising. “If the coalition partner then takes an obstructive approach to these new tasks, then you have to make a decision that it cannot continue.”
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Being no strangers to the curse of coalitions, the new SPD leaders might also calculate that they are better severing their ties now than just before the next election. They might sense, too, that they are somehow swimming with a broader international tide — as the centre-left moves more Leftwards, and the centre-right moves to the Right. In this context, it would not only be the rejected candidates for the SPD who have run out of time, but also Angela Merkel and her colleagues on the centre-right.
If the coalition were to collapse, and if Angela Merkel were unable to find an alternative partner or partners — and the difficulties she experienced in 2017 suggest that it would be even harder this time around — the likely consequence would be a new election. Given that the Chancellor has already stated her intention to stand down in 2021, and that she has already passed the CDU leader’s baton to Krampf-Karrenbauer, an early election would almost certainly bring an early end to the Merkel era.
For all the periodic speculation, the departure of Angela Merkel from the Chancellery, whenever it comes, will be a huge shock for Germany. But the consequences would reverberate far beyond as well. It is hard to remember now the relatively timid public figure and almost apologetic campaigner who just squeaked into office in 2005. She has become not just a commanding figure in her homeland as Germany’s “Mutti”, but an immense force for moderation and international stability, too. Her absence would be felt at once — not least because there is no obvious successor.
Despite her best efforts to smoothe the transition, by passing the CDU leadership to her chosen successor last year, open jockeying for the succession has continued. Nor has Kramp-Karrenbauer — now not only party leader, but also defence minister since the departure of Ursula von der Leyen to the European Commission this autumn — done much to consolidate her authority. It is hard to see her leading the CDU into an election, let alone helping the party to win. Yet what looks like inevitable in-fighting will help the party even less.
An early indication of the gap Merkel’s departure will leave was the no-holds barred defence of Nato she made in a speech to the Bundestag in advance of the London Nato leaders’ meeting this week. For all the chiding of Germany (by the US and others) for its apparent dawdling on the way to meeting the 2% of GDP target for contributions to the alliance, Merkel offered her staunch support to the alliance, saying that “the preservation of Nato is in our fundamental interest, even more so than during the Cold War…For the time being, Europe can’t defend itself on its own — we are reliant on this transatlantic alliance.”
Her support was seen in part as a riposte to a statement the French President had made in a recent interview with the Economist, in which he described Nato as “brain-dead”. But it also highlighted another gap that will be left when Merkel departs. Since the UK voted to leave the European Union, there has been something of a reversion to the concept of the Franco-German “dynamo”, with the youthful Emmanuel Macron promoting himself as the thinker and leader of Europe’s future.
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Merkel — who opposes Macron’s calls for the EU to develop its own military capability and has been at odds with him, too, on whether to grant the UK more time to complete the Brexit process — has been a restraining influence on Macron’s ambitions, and so helped preserve an equilibrium at the top of the EU. It is hard to suggest anyone else in the European firmament, least of all a new and untried German leader, who would have the gravitas or the confidence to restrain Macron. Yet his particular enthusiasms make him a potentially divisive figure.
Merkel’s positive response to the refugee crisis of 2015 — which was hers, and hers alone — can be seen as unwise in the sense that it alienated many of the more ‘frontline’ European countries.
Her confident “wir schaffen das” — we can do it — set the tone. Without her reassurance, and her stress on integration, the risk is that racist incidents and tensions increase. The assaults at Cologne station on New Year’s Eve 2015-16 and the country’s response — it was several days before the story broke, and then caused attitudes against immigration to harden and attacks on immigrants to increase — indicate what may lie just below the surface.
Merkel certainly paid a price at the polls for her attitude towards immigration. In terms of upholding “European values”, however, she offered a master-class in humanitarianism, which perhaps only she could have risked and has stoutly defended since.
This surely owed much to her background, which made her the ideal German leader for her time. A pastor’s daughter, who grew up and made her early career in East Germany, before joining the CDU and becoming a protegee of Chancellor Helmut Kohl, Merkel was able to span the two halves of re-united Germany as no other politician could have done. She was able to convince all Germans, especially in the former East, that the objective is economic fairness across the country.
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Without her, that divide — in economic prospects and political sympathies — risks deepening resentment and allowing an ever more powerful right-wing Alternative für Deutschland to extend its appeal.
Merkel’s claim both to the moral high ground and to familiarity with the East German experience gives her a credibility that will be nigh-impossible for anyone to reproduce. German politics may be splintering, among shades of Left, Right and green, but Merkel was able to stay largely above the fray.
The crunch will come this weekend, when the new SPD leaders are confirmed at the party’s convention, and a vote of delegates will be taken on whether to stay in or leave the coalition. If the vote is to leave, Merkel will be faced with a choice as to agree to new, and probably protracted, negotiations, to soldier on as head of a minority government, or to resign.
Even if she survives, however, the developments of recent days have sounded an early warning. Not just for Germany; Europe and the world need to prepare for a world in which Angela Merkel’s steady hand is no longer on Germany’s helm.