The year 2020 was shaping up to be a decisive year for Germany on the international stage. As a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council for two years, and holding both the rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union in the second half of the year and of the Council of Europe´s Council of Ministers (“Greater Europe”, including Russia, Ukraine, Turkey, etc.), the German government saw this unusual alignment of international agendas as an opportunity to assert its position and vision on major European and international issues.
This determination was to be reinforced by the willingness of the new German President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, a close associate of Angela Merkel, to lead a “geopolitical commission” that is more proactive in ensuring its security.
Germany’s ambition was reflected from the very first days of the year by organizing the conference on peace in Libya on the 19th of January in Berlin and a few days later the major annual meeting of the 56th Munich Security Conference under the provocative title of ‘Westlessness,’ which refers to a world without Western dominance.
However, the facts, both domestically and internationally, were to quickly put this fine ambition at half-mast.
The Berlin Conference on Libya brought together, around its host Chancellor Merkel, the entire international community at the highest level, including Presidents Putin, Erdogan, Macron, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Prime Minister Boris Johnson, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres … but was ignored by the two main protagonists in the conflict, Fayez al-Sarraj (head of the National Accord Government, GNA) and Khalifa Haftar (leader of the Libyan National Army, LNA). As a result, the invited states and institutions called for “the parties to redouble their efforts for the suspension of hostilities, de-escalation and a permanent ceasefire” in the final communiqué. This was wishful thinking when many violations of the ceasefire had already taken place.
In Munich, the concept of ‘westlessness’ left many participants perplexed. Faced with China’s rise to power and America’s retreat, President Macron said he wanted to go “faster and further on the elements of sovereignty at the European level” and hinted at a certain frustration in the face of a Germany that was reluctant to embark on a European recovery, which he considered essential.
More serious for the Chancellor was the political crisis caused by the election on the 5th of February in Thuringia – an East German federal state – of a Liberal Minister-President with the support of the AfD, Germany’s radical right-wing party, and the backing of the local CDU. Angela Merkel denounced this “unforgivable act” and called it a “bad day for democracy”. For the first time in post-war history, a regional leader was elected with the votes of the far right, and above all the first time that the moderate right formed an alliance with the AfD, thus breaking a political taboo–a line that Merkel did not accept. As an immediate consequence, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, the fragile boss of the CDU, who was to succeed Angela Merkel as Chancellor in 2021, was forced to resign for failing to control her troops. Long months of efforts to achieve a succession in line with the Chancellor’s wishes – particularly on migration policy – were reduced to nothing, and immediately a new succession race began which she was no longer really able to control. A political crisis ensued against a backdrop of economic stagnation and the prospect of the German economy entering recession.
In Berlin, commentary was strong and many were speculating that the Chancellor would leave before her term ended in 2021. Der Spiegel, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and most of the major German media were saying that it was time for her to step down.
However, the Covid-19 crisis quickly gave her the opportunity to regain her authority in Germany and above all to assert her leadership on the international scene. Faced with the crisis, the Germans found “Mutti”, the affectionate nickname they had been using for years. A Mutti whose management of the crisis with scientific rigour, empathy and pragmatism has stood in stark contrast to the erratic, dramatic and chaotic management of many leaders. In her televised message in mid-March announcing the precautionary measures to be taken in the face of the pandemic, she had the wisdom to associate with the Minister-President of Bavaria and the Mayor of Hamburg, thus demonstrating the decisive role that local authorities would play in managing the health crisis, since the decision to close schools, regulate transport and public gatherings has been their responsibility in this federal country. This shows her ability to act collectively. At the G7 conference-call meeting, she had no hesitation in strongly denouncing the decision of the US president to suspend his country’s financial contribution to the WHO, stating that the response to the pandemic must involve a strengthening of international cooperation. Her Foreign Minister, Heiko Maas, said that the American decision was to eject the pilot in mid-flight, and that the WHO must remain at the centre of the fight against the pandemic. Speaking at the Petersberg Climate Conference on the 28th of April, Merkel said that economic stimulus plans must place particular emphasis on combating climate change. Her voice carries weight both in Germany and on the international stage. Her handling of the crisis has put her at the top of the polls since 2017.
In the face of Chinese and American leaders who are likely to emerge very weakened from the pandemic, and an almost general lack of leadership on the international scene, Merkel has a unique opportunity today to embody the voice of reason and moderation in the necessary reinvention of the mechanisms of international cooperation and the re-composition of the world order. Tomorrow, as a result of the health crisis, there can be a “Merkel moment” to promote a new, fair and balanced internationalism, capable of addressing the common challenges facing humanity, and to which all those who are committed to the values of equality, balanced development, and dialogue and cooperation among civilizations will want to join. This includes, in particular, the urgent and major task of reforming the United Nations and the way it operates and laying the lasting foundations for a Globalization 2.0 in the interests of the greatest number of people. And to take advantage of this unique moment when, for the first time, the whole of humanity is facing the same threat to develop a sense of common belonging, shared responsibility and common destiny. One humanity, many civilizations.
The Dialogue of Civilizations Research Institute will hold the 18th edition of its Rhodes Forum in Berlin this year on 2 and 3 of October with the aim of contributing to this reflection and drawing up concrete recommendations to this end.
Although narrow, the window of opportunity is very real for Merkel, all the more so as she will take over the Presidency of the European Union on the 1st of July. She has 18 months left to complete this mission that can make her go down in history along with the leaders who, 75 years ago, in the aftermath of the chaos of World War II, managed to overcome their differences and develop a vision to put the world back on track.
CEO, Dialogue of Civilizations Research Institute
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