Angela Merkel’s decision to end her political career, apart from sitting out her third term as German Chancellor until 2021, can be compared to a monarch’s suspended abdication. Unsurprisingly, most of the respectful commentaries that were published since her announcement, pointing out the tactfulness and uniqueness of her departure, read like obituaries. To leave the political arena unchallenged, just by announcing never to fight again, is a novelty among the chancellors of the German Federal Republic. It amounts to political self-emasculation. The influence that Merkel exerted over German and European politics for so many years, a dominance by default that transcended political and party divisions, has vanished overnight. To call her a lame duck may soon prove an understatement. What makes it even more complicated: the monarch leaves the throne without an heir apparent.
With her announcement, Merkel has placed control over her finite political future in the hands of the two governing parties, the Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU) and the Social Democrats (SPD). As long as they both support the grand coalition that they formed just nine months ago, Merkel continues as chancellor. She will have no say whatsoever in their decision. Given the ambiguous state of her own party, the CDU, it is not even clear whether her backing of a successor as party president will be considered supportive or damaging to whoever that may be.
The fact is that Angela Merkel will be leaving Germany with a heap of unresolved, fundamental issues. Widely seen as a beacon of stability in European and German politics, her tenure of 13 years embodies the contradictory nature of that term: stability. On the one hand, stability means the prevention of unnecessary disruption, which Merkel achieved during the Euro crisis after 2010 and with her firm stance towards Russia in 2015 and since. In both cases she stood by her commitment to European integration and to Germany’s alignment with the Western alliance – regardless of the cost.
On the other hand, stability tends to prevent necessary change. That became apparent after Chancellor Merkel opened Germany’s borders and allowed in over a million refugees and migrants in 2015; it became clear that the immigration and asylum policies were insufficient in handling these numbers. To this date, she has refused to acknowledge that as a result of present and future migration movements, the liberal post-war German asylum laws require replacement by immigration policies reflecting the needs and capacity of the host country to react to the inevitably inflows of migrants to Europe.
Angela Merkel’s later years in power are characterised by the detrimental aspects of stability politics. Another example is her procrastination in moving forward necessary EU reforms. Among the German political class, Emmanuel Macron’s far-reaching proposals for a closer integration of European fiscal and monetary policies fell upon deaf ears. Not without reason – most experts suspect that at the end of the day, Berlin would have to foot the bill. At the same time though, Merkel did not oppose the European Central Bank’s massive bond-buying spree, as a result of which the ECB now carries Eurozone countries’ bonds in the amount of 2.6 trillion euro. In the case of a default of a bond-issuing government, a quarter of the amount would have to be written off the German budget.
Another tool to credit cash-poor European economies is the Eurozone inter-bank settlement and clearing system Target2. Towards the end of 2018, its negative balance will be close to one trillion euro, with Italy by far the largest debtor and Germany by far the largest creditor.
As long as Merkel held sway over the mainstream in German politics and media, outspoken opposition to her euro and migration policies was limited to the fringes of the political spectrum, namely the right-populist party Alternative for Germany (AfD). That in turn polarised Merkel’s urban middle-class supporters, a traditionally non-conservative constituency characterised by leftist-liberal views that until Merkel’s chancellorship used to vacillate between the SPD and the Green Party. Sensing a stalemate between Merkel, who refused to yield to conservative pressure, and her party, refusing to be pushed still further left, the urban electorate started to abandon the chancellor in favor of the Greens and their sharper, liberal-progressive profile. At the same time and for the same reason, a good part of the conservative CDU electorate abandoned Merkel in favor of the rightist AfD.
By and large, the process led to political bloodshed of unknown dimensions. Over the years, the CDU/CSU sister parties lost around half of their former electorate. The losses in voter support are not diminished by those of the second ‘people party’, the Social Democrats, who suffered an equal if not higher collapse. The SPD’s incentive to review the grand coalition government in Berlin is triggered by recent election results, most notably in Bavaria and Hesse, and not so much by Merkel’s suspended demise. At present, the oldest German party, the highly dignified SPD, seems to be the first major victim of the cardinal changes that will grasp Germany and the whole of Europe in the 21st century. The Social Democrats’ immediate choice is whether to disappear, unless they manage a miracle turnaround, in the establishment or the opposition.
The CDU and CSU are still in a more promising position than the SPD. The willingness to admit to conservative and rightist-liberal viewpoints has been growing. In a way, the growing skepticism of multicultural cohabitation creates a demand for a political party combining pragmatism with a ‘modern’ or ‘contemporary’ conservatism. Its modernism, then, would reflect the acceptance of the societal changes of the last 20 to 30 years. It would acknowledge the more positive attitudes towards minorities and the decoupling of culture and ethnicity, along with the authority of the state and its organs, and the emphasis of collective values as being equal to, and at times competing with, individual ones.
Germany’s main conservative party now has the opportunity, at last, to remodel center-right policies for the 21st century. Be it European integration, Eurozone policies, the transatlantic alliance or relations with the Eurasian powers, the fundamental areas of German (and European) politics cannot continue to proceed along the same vectors as during the last 10 to 20 years. The time for refurbishment and restructuring has come. To have this come to fruition, Angela Merkel’s retreat from political life was a prerequisite. The other critical component is that her party’s leaders don’t shy away from the challenge. Germany without a future-oriented conservative-liberal camp could bode badly for Europe.