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  • Writer's picturePauline Zaragoza

Merkel & the departure of a political icon: A shift from stability to uncertainty for Germany & EU?

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“[Angela Merkel] stood for stability for the world including Europe and Germany” (Berlin AFP, 2021)

These words from one of the spectators gathered in front of the German Chancellery for a last goodbye to Angela Merkel, translate the end of an epoch for Germany and Europe with the departure of a political icon. At the age of 67 years old, Angela Merkel is leaving the German leadership after 16 years being the head of government. During her mandate, she experienced a succession of events from the 2007 financial crisis, the arrival and departure of Donald Trump, and the current Covid 19 pandemic. She left her mark on the German and European political scenes through her stable leadership, efficiency, decision-making skills, and ability to reach agreements in difficult situations of divergence (Schnee, 2020). She personified consistency in a time where extremism rose in Germany and Europe (Lochocki, 2018).

As an unprecedented figure in the history of the German Federal Republic, she is leaving power to a triple coalition composed of the SPD (Social Democratic Party of Germany), the FDP (Free Democratic Party), and the Green Party. They will shape a center-left wing government led by the social democrat Olaf Scholz as the new chancellor. As a sign of unity, this new coalition negotiated a governing deal to avoid a breakdown within the German decision-making process due to their political heterogeneity.

This political shift, in a context of crisis, questions the future of Germany and Europe. This new government wants to represent an opportunity to bring center-left reforms in contrast to Merkel’s conservatism stemming from her belonging to the center-right CDU party. This is an opportunity to reform Germany after 16 years of Merkelism, however, this new government will face strong difficulties to govern considering their current challenges.

Germany: from the villain to the leader of Europe

Back to the Second World War, Germany held the role of villain in Europe. In aftermath of this war, Germany collapsed, divided by a wall between the West and the East, occupied by the French, British, Americans, the Soviet Union, and without any military power. Until the reunification in 1990, the country was split between the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) and the German Democratic Republic (East Germany). The Federal Republic of Germany witnessed an economic boom (Grünbacher, 2017). From 1951 to 1961, West Germany’s gross national product (GNP) rose by 8 percent per year (Strauss, 2021). At this time, the Federal Republic was mostly governed by a chancellor from Merkel’s CDU party (Helms, 2000). Alongside its economic success, West Germany built its European leadership hand in hand with France thanks to the fact they were founding members of what would become the European Union, the emergence of post-war reconciliation as well as their geographic, financial, and economic power (Cole, 2010). This European leadership is also the result of a political will under Willy Brandt (1969-74), Helmut Schmidt (1974-82), and Helmut Kohl (from 1982) through their policies promoting a deeper European integration (Bulmer and Paterson, 1996). Nowadays, Germany is one of the largest economies in the world as well as one of the most predominant actors for the European Union (Dustmann et al., 2014).

Merkel’s leadership: between stability, strictness, and humanity

In 2005, Merkel became the chancellor of Germany at a moment where national stability and European leadership were already acquired. However, the global financial crisis of 2007 showed Merkel’s ability to manage in times of crisis (Bohn and Jong, 2011). Under this context, Germany through Merkel’s policies became the EU’s leadership hegemon thanks to its economic and financial power as well as the inability of France to face the difficulties of the crisis (Schweiger, 2018). However, at this time the uncompromising and strict stance of Merkel to impose austerity measures towards Greece and indebted southern European countries was a subject of controversy (Chadwick, 2021). Another moment marking Merkel’s governance was her position towards the migrant crisis in 2015 when she agreed to welcome 1 million migrants despite her party standing against this measure. This showed a new aspect of Merkel as a humanist attached to democratic values as well as her evolution towards a moral and convicted leadership (Jacob, 2015; Helms et al., 2019). Another policy showing the strength of Merkel was the construction of the Nord Stream II Pipeline between Russia and Germany despite opposition from the US (Aris, 2021). As well, she gained respect through her ability to negotiate an EU economic recovery deal during the Covid 19 pandemic notwithstanding the Frugal Four’s reluctance (Austria, Denmark, Sweden, and the Netherlands) (Greubel and Pornschlegel, 2021)). As a result of her ability to manage times of crisis with consistency, strictness but also sometimes with humanity, Merkel embodied efficiency and stability which made her win the hearts of the German and European peoples. As shown by a recent survey from the Guardian, she is the most popular world leader with a positive rating both at home and abroad (Henley, 2021).

What’s next: A new era of progress and instability?

On the 8th of December, the new German government took power. The latter represents a shift from Merkelism with the beginning of a progressive era. This new government is revolutionary in terms of composition as it constitutes the first gender-equal government in German History with women at key positions such as the Ministry of Interior and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Bennhold, 2021). As well, the political positioning of this new coalition is hitherto unseen with an alliance between the Green party, the SPD, and the FDP which promotes modern policies in rupture with Merkel’s conservative positions. As the distribution of the ministerial portfolios, the SPD is in charge of social justice affairs, the FDP is handling fiscal and digital issues and the Greens take care of the environmental and foreign affairs questions.

Symbolic of this new era, the coalition published a cooperation deal named “Dare more progress," intending to represent an "alliance for freedom, justice, and sustainability” (Turner, 2021). Through their agenda, they want to give a breath of fresh air to Germany. As policies, they want to increase the minimum wage to €12, legalize the regulated sale of cannabis, lower the voting age to 16, allow dual citizenship and open access to German citizenship to immigrants after five years as well as commit to 80% renewable energy efficiency by 2030 and phase out coal energy which was enhanced by Merkel after the Fukushima incident in 2011 (Oltermann, 2021; Frum, 2021).

Moreover, some changes are perceptible in terms of foreign policy with the new Green Minister Annalena Baerbock, who made a bold entrance to her new position. She announced the implementation of a foreign policy focused on climate change and human rights. In doing so, she wants to use Germany’s G7 leadership in 2022 to exercise and influence wealthy countries to invest in clean energies (Federal Foreign Office, 2021). As well, she questioned a change in the diplomatic relations with China and Russia considering the current human rights infringements occurring in those countries (Oltermann, 2021). By putting western values above commercial interests unlike Angela Merkel who pushed for the EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment in late 2020, Germany is adopting a sharp foreign policy change from a realist to an idealist lens. Recently, she put her words in action by demanding a forced-labor ban and boycotting China’s Winter Olympics (Von Der Burchard, 2021a).

Nonetheless, this will of progressive policies might face some obstacles. After the first months of unity, the governmental coalition might face internal disagreements which might compromise this impetus of modernity and kill the hopes of modernizing Germany. A potential issue is a green swing endorsed by the Green Party and the SPD which requires a lot of public investment whereas the liberals from the FDP want to limit public spending (AFP, 2021). Moreover, those reforms might be affected by the Covid 19 pandemic which demands constant governmental attention and erases other subjects. Also, the cut-off of coal energy would not be easy with the pressure of powerful lobbies in a sector that employed 16,729 Germans in 2016 (Statista, 2019).

In addition, the Bundestag composition experienced some changes with the improvement of the representation of women, youth, and minorities (Nöstlinger, 2021). Moreover, due to "overhanging" seats (Überhangmandate) and the compensation "leveling" seats (Ausgleichsmandate), the number of deputies increased to reach the record number of 736, which make it the second-largest parliament in the World (Dick and Goldenberg, 2021). Even though the ruling coalition has a majority in the Bundestag (416 over 736 seats), this majority depends on the unity among the three parties forming the german government (Bundestag, 2021). Therefore, the large numbers of deputies, the current pandemic context, and the political divergences might challenge the Scholz government’s ambitions for Germany.

A change of leadership and agenda for the EU?

The beginning of the post-Merkel period does not only imply change at a national scale but will also impact the European leadership mainly held by Germany and France. The Franco-German reconciliation has traditionally been viewed as the ‘engine’ that drives European integration, even though it has been losing momentum in the last years ((Mourlon-Druol, 2017: 1-4). The agreement between Germany and France is determinant as back in time, the disagreement between both did not help to solve the EU challenges (Mourlon-Druol, 2017). This relationship is expressed through the implementation of the political agenda, the building of consensus, and coalitions to reach agreements (Krotz and Schramm, 2021). The lack of Merkel’s charisma might affect the balance of influence in this European leadership as France will lead the European Council for the next six months. However, there are low chances to witness drastic changes in the future regarding the Franco-German couple as long as they stand for the same positions. At the moment, the governments of Olaf Scholz and Emmanuel Macron share the same ambitions to push European integration, but the result of the upcoming French elections in April 2022 might affect this unity.

Moreover, as good news for the European Union, those German elections have been won by three strong Pro-European parties whereas skeptical ones such as the AFD diminished in influence in the Bundestag from 87 to 82 seats (Bundestag, 2021). As part of their European agenda, Scholz and his government want to reactivate EU integration and tackle current EU challenges (Guignard, 2021). For instance, they want to reinforce sanctions towards Poland and Hungary and change the voting rules from unanimity to qualified majority regarding common foreign and security policy issues to avoid the interference of foreign great powers through small European states (Von Der Burchard, 2021b). However, those changes might be complicated since they require to change the treaties which might be blocked by Hungary and Poland. As well, this new German leadership wants to initiate a reform of the European asylum system after the Belarus border crisis (Von Der Burchard, 2021b). Furthermore, in their programs, the Greens, SPD, and FDP enhanced their vision of greater European sovereignty through the implementation of a common European policy of defense (Baudry, 2021). The SDP went deeper by advocating for the creation of a European army as well as a social and fiscal union to fight fiscal competition within the EU and implement a transition to a green and digital economy (Baudry, 2021). With those non-consensual European plans, Germany is changing from its usual non-confrontational leadership practiced during Merkel mandates to a disruptive one (Von Der Burchard, 2021b).

Therefore, the new government of Olaf Scholz wants to initiate a left swing for both Germany and Europe. This new wave of progress raises hopes on paper; however, their governmental ambitions will face many challenges and might be called off in the future. Despite the nostalgia and uncertainty created by Merkel’s departure, what we are certain of right now is that this post-Merkel area, with this promising coalition, represents an opportunity to give a new breath of fresh air to Germany and Europe.


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