She first came to power at the head of Germany’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) when Bill Clinton was in the White House, Tony Blair was British prime minister and Jacques Chirac was the resident of the Elysée Palace. But after a further electoral blow for her party in Hesse on Sunday, Angela Merkel has fired the starting gun on her retirement, confirming she will not be standing for re-election as chairwoman of the CDU in December or as Chancellor in 2021. Euronews asks political analyst Leopold Traugott about what impact the news of Merkel’s long goodbye will have on Germany and the rest of Europe.
While her [Merkel's] initial decision to keep the borders open secured her the admiration and support of many, it also lead a significant rise of opposition which has manifested itself most strongly in the AfD.Policy analyst at the think tank Open Europe
Euronews:Is Angela Merkel’s decision to step down in 2021 good or bad news for Europe? In other words, having been a symbolic leader of European unity, has she now become a burden for those who want to build a more integrated continent?
Leopold Traugott: It is true that Merkel has, over the past few years, become a polarising figure in European politics - particularly with southern and eastern European leaders - due to her handling of the Eurozone and refugee crises. In that sense, her successor as Chancellor will face both the opportunity and challenge of repairing some of these relationships.
Nevertheless, it will be hard to bill her departure simply as good news for Europe. Merkel certainly made her fair share of mistakes, but she was committed to the European project and to Germany’s central role in it. She could not always deliver what her European partners expected or hoped for, due in part to German public opinion which, on the whole, remains sceptical of many of the integrationist projects promoted by French President Emmanuel Macron, for example. These will be limitations that Merkel’s successor will have to deal with as well.
Euronews:Could Macron take Merkel’s place as the leader of European integration, or will he instead be weakened without his powerful German counterpart?
Leopold Traugott: Macron has repeatedly been talked up as new leader of Europe, e.g. after his 2017 Sorbonne speech, at times even seeming to take over the lead role as Merkel’s political star began to wane last year. But he has his own political troubles at home - his plummeting approval ratings, cabinet resignations and occasional scandals. Even if Merkel’s departure would give him more room to shine, would he be able to make the most of it? Macron is also a divisive figure across Europe.
The extent to which he could be weakened by Merkel’s departure will of course also depend on who follows her. Will her successor be a committed pro-European, seeking a compromise with France to push forward European integration? Or will he or she be someone slightly more sceptical of French proposals on the Eurozone or banking union for example? After all, Macron will still depend on German support for his key EU reform plans.
Euronews: While the direct reasons of her decision certainly lie in the poor results for her party in recent state elections in Germany, what are the reasons of this relative electoral failure?
Leopold Traugott: An astonishing 73% of those who voted for the CDU in Hesse in 2013, who gave their vote to another party in 2018, said that they saw this election as a good opportunity to give a warning to the Federal government. Conversely, this comes at a time when the number of people who are satisfied with the work of the Hesse state government (which is actually CDU-led) is at its highest since 2003. Much of this electoral failure can therefore be attributed to problems in Berlin where Merkel’s forces form a Grand Coalition with the Social Democrats (SPD).
Euronews: Did the phenomenon of massive migration three years ago have a negative impact on Angela Merkel’s position, particularly with regard to the growth of Alternative for Germany?
Leopold Traugott: The refugee crisis of 2015 has had a decisive and polarising impact on Merkel’s political fortunes. While her initial decision to keep the borders open secured her the admiration and support of many, it also lead a significant rise of opposition which has manifested itself most strongly in the AfD. It also divided her own bloc - the CDU and its Bavarian sister party, the CSU - where, despite an initial trust in and loyalty to Merkel, many ultimately disagreed with her way of handling the European migration issue. Even where the numbers of new asylum seekers arriving ultimately went down, the politics that has arisen from this issue have kept following Merkel. Outside Germany, Merkel’s handling of the refugee crisis also led to an increasing divide within the EU, due in particular to Merkel’s plan to introduce a mandatory relocation scheme across the bloc.
Leopold Traugott is a policy analyst at the think tank Open Europe.
Opinions expressed in View articles are solely those of the authors.