Europe Enters New Era as Merkel Signals Her Exit

German Chancellor Angela Merkel speaks after a leaders meeting of her Christian Democratic Union party in Berlin on June 18. (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)

(CN) — It’s the beginning of the end for German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s long-dominant position in Europe after she announced she would not seek another term and would step aside as her party’s leader.

Merkel, 64, announced at a news conference Monday that she will not seek re-election as her party’s leader in December and will not seek another term after 2021.

Her announcement followed poor election results on Sunday in Hesse, a wealthy German state, for her centrist Christian Democratic Union. Earlier in October, the CDU’s sister party, the Christian Social Union, also lost heavily in Bavarian state elections.

In both elections, the left-leaning Greens and far-right Alternative for Germany political parties made gains.

“The (election) figures that came in overnight are wholly disappointing and bitter,” Merkel said at the news conference.

She said “it can no longer be business as usual” for her party.

“I believe we should pause for a moment and think,” she said. “Today, it’s time to begin a new chapter.”

She has been the CDU party chair since 2000 and Germany’s chancellor since 2005. She is Europe’s longest-serving head of state.

Her decision to step aside as CDU party chair opens up a leadership fight that, if one of her critics wins, could undermine her position as chancellor too.

She is backing Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, the 56-year-old CDU secretary general whom Merkel has groomed as her successor. German media have dubbed her “Mini-Merkel,” in part because of her politically centrist stances. She’s called for raising taxes on high incomes but also holds socially conservative values.

Two Merkel critics also have thrown their hats into the ring. They are Jens Spahn, the 38-year-old health minister, and Friedrich Merz, a successful commercial lawyer and former politician.

If either of those men wins, political analysts say Merkel could find it increasingly difficult to govern. They represent the conservative wing of the CDU membership, which has been critical of what it sees as Merkel’s left-leaning policies.

At the same time, the Social Democrats, who are in a governing coalition with Merkel’s union parties, are in turmoil after heavy electoral losses. The Social Democrats, who traditionally were the party of trade unions and left-wing voters, are questioning the benefits of being aligned with Merkel’s conservative party.

Merkel’s weakened position will be felt throughout Europe. At her news conference, she said she was not interested in political positions within the European Union, ending speculation that she might seek a high office in the EU bureaucracy.

Merkel is often referred to as a mother figure in Europe and Germany, being called Mutti, German for Mom. She is the EU’s foremost political figure and has long been seen as critical during major crises and negotiations.

“Merkel has been a symbol of steadiness and continuity,” Jon Henley, the Guardian newspaper’s European affairs correspondent, wrote. He called Merkel the “de facto leader” of Europe and said her political end “comes as the continent’s political stability and consensus are arguably at greater risk than at any time since the end of the second world war.”

Many in Europe see Merkel in a different light.

Merkel pushed for austerity measures during the financial and euro crisis after the 2008 financial meltdown and many critics say that policy stunted economic growth for many European nations.

She has many critics, especially on the right, who remain upset at her decision in 2015 to allow more than 1 million asylum-seekers into Germany.

Her push to welcome refugees from Syria and elsewhere is seen as having seriously hurt her politically.

Merkel’s political uncertainty will likely cause French President Emmanuel Macron to look elsewhere for allies in his push to make sweeping changes to the European Union to make it even more centralized and militarily stronger.

(Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.)

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