* Even the German leader’s biggest critics are worried about what will happen when she goes.
As if Europe didn’t have enough to worry about at the moment (Italy, Brexit, Poland, Hungary, populism … Italy!), Germany is back on the boil.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s decision this week to step aside from the leadership of her Christian Democrats may trigger all or none of the following: the end of her chancellorship, the collapse of the government, a new coalition, a minority government and/or new elections. Whatever the outcome, the waves will be felt well beyond Germany’s borders.
Some in the Brussels bubble have taken refuge in denial, insisting the European Union will chug along, regardless of what transpires in Berlin. After all, with 28 (for now) autonomous members there’s always political turmoil somewhere. Following a bit of hand wringing, things will return to normal, right?
If only wishing it would make it so.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel with Hungarian Prime Minister Vikto Orban in the background — but he might not stay there for long | Omer Messinger/AFP via Getty Images
Just as for Germany, Merkel’s departure would mark a watershed for the EU. No leader has dominated European affairs to the extent she has over the past 13 years for at least a generation, if not longer. Others may have built Europe, but it was Merkel who had the arguably more difficult task of holding it together. Whatever mistakes she made in handling the eurocrisis or migration, her moniker as the “Queen of Europe” is only half in jest.
For years, at any meeting of European leaders, all eyes have been trained on Merkel. Nothing is decided until the German chancellor, who likes to immerse herself in the arcane details of policy debates, has weighed in.
It’s tempting to attribute that influence solely to Germany’s size and power. Yet, according to Merkel’s fellow leaders, that’s only part of the story.
«There’s a different atmosphere in the room when she’s not there. Once she’s gone,
- “She commands respect, even from those who disagree with her,” said one veteran center-right prime minister who has observed Merkel at innumerable summits over the years.
- “There’s a different atmosphere in the room when she’s not there. Once she’s gone, [Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor] Orbán takes over.”
Call it the soft side of Germany’s hard power.
That might explain why some of Merkel’s biggest critics are the most worried about her potential departure in the coming months.
“The most important thing for us is Ms. Merkel declared she will remain chancellor until the end of her mandate,” Polish Foreign Minister Jacek Czaputowicz, whose party has been deeply critical of the chancellor’s refugee policy, said on Monday.
While that may sound more like a “devil-you-know” lament than true regret, he went even further, noting the chancellor’s “important place” in European history.
Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš, another critic of Merkel’s approach to migration, expressed a similar sentiment. «For us it is crucial that she will stay as German [chancellor] for next three years,” he said. “Germany is our most important economic partner and the chancellor herself deserves credit for being a reliable friend of the Czech Republic.»
Despite those displays of admiration, the most pressing question for the EU is how much authority Merkel will retain as a lame duck, assuming she survives at all.
Even at the height of her power and influence, Merkel often had difficulty pushing through her agenda in the fractious bloc, as her failure to find agreement for an EU quota system for refugees, despite repeated attempts, illustrated.
On issues of broad consensus in the EU, such as Brexit, Merkel’s diminished status won’t be a problem. The same is true for decisions that need to be made in the near term, like filling senior European positions, whether at the European Central Bank or the Commission. Germany is still Germany and can throw its weight around when it wants to.
When it comes to more fundamental, longer-term questions, though, such as how to handle Central Europe’s increasingly illiberal governments or reforming the eurozone, the outlook is less clear. Poland’s endorsement for Merkel notwithstanding, Warsaw has every incentive now to play for time and see what emerges — especially if Merkel hardens her tone on the controversial question of the ruling Law and Justice party’s judicial reforms.
In an unexpected twist, Merkel’s move could renew hope for the stalled effort to repair the eurozone.
She has dragged her feet on reforming the euro for years, mainly due to political considerations at home, where any hint that German taxpayers could end up footing the bill for other Europeans is met with immediate outrage and resistance. (It was opposition to the eurozone bailouts that spawned the Alternative for Germany, which has since morphed into a virulent anti-immigrant party.)
Some observers believe Merkel, once absolved of her party obligations, will have a freer hand to finally cut a deal with French President Emmanuel Macron on a banking union, including the contentious issue of deposit insurance. The two agreed to a road map over the summer during a meeting at the chancellor’s official country residence, Meseberg, but little has happened since.
Even if Merkel (or her successor as chancellor) would find it difficult to push the reforms through the German parliament, she could make a strong statement by going ahead anyway, betting that by the time the measures come up for a vote the political constellation will have changed.
Considering that Merkel’s chief focus as chancellor has been her work on Europe, the idea might not be as crazy as it may first appear.
“We have to move forward, we cannot wait forever, and we need our German partners to make progress,” a senior French official said.
The publication is not an editorial. It reflects solely the point of view and argumentation of the author. The publication is presented in the presentation. Start in the previous issue. The original is available at: politico.eu