Europe is heading toward a major turning point as longtime German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s era comes to an end. State elections this weekend will provide early clues about who might replace her.
(CN) — A huge question mark hangs over Europe: Who will become the next chancellor of Germany?
Germany is in the midst of an intense political year with the end of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s 16-year reign over both Germany and the European Union following elections in late September to choose Germany’s next parliament, the Bundestag. Merkel, who turns 67 in July, says she plans to retire after her successor has been found, making these the first elections in post-war Germany where the incumbent isn’t running.
One outcome seems likely: The Merkel-to-be will come from Germany’s ruling conservative bloc, a union of two Christian democratic parties – the Christian Democratic Union, Merkel’s group, and a sister party in Bavaria, the Christian Social Union.
Polls show the conservatives easily ahead of rival parties, though their advantage has weakened in recent weeks due to rising coronavirus infections blamed on mistakes by Merkel’s government and the eruption of a scandal over two party members allegedly receiving kickbacks for brokering protective mask deals. Both politicians – Nikolas Löbel and Georg Nüsslein – resigned from their parties.
Still, it remains unlikely that the parties on the left – the Social Democrats, the Greens and the Left, an offshoot of East Germany’s communist party – will get enough votes to form a ruling coalition. Another unlikely, but possible, outcome would be for the Greens and Social Democrats to join the Free Democratic Party, a pro-business liberal group.
For now, the likely scenario is the conservatives will form a government through an alliance with the Greens or the Social Democrats. There is a lot of speculation over a possible coalition with the Greens, who have gained in popularity. Presently, the conservatives are in a “grand coalition” with the Social Democrats, the traditional center-left party.
Assuming a conservative becomes Germany’s next chancellor, the general thrust of Merkel’s policies likely will carry on: Germany will remain pro-EU but hesitant about deeper integration and sharing its wealth across the bloc; socially, it will be mildly liberal and conservative when it comes to economic policy. On foreign affairs, it will likely put its instincts for mercantilism and pacifism first and not want to rock the boat too much. Translation: Don’t expect Germany, and therefore the EU, to side with the United States in a trade war with China or push too hard against Russian maneuvers.
Still, the loss of Merkel – who’s become the face of Europe – brings with it a lot of uncertainty. In a Europe where big-tent traditional parties are disappearing and politics are becoming more fractious, Merkel has become a pillar of reliability, rationality and stability.
“Following in Angela Merkel’s footsteps will be no easy task,” said Johannes Greubel and Sophie Pornschlegel, analysts at the European Policy Centre, a think tank based in Brussels, in a briefing note. “Chancellor Merkel will leave behind a political vacuum that cannot be easily filled.”
They noted that Merkel enjoys extremely high approval ratings in Germany, over 80%, and “has been nothing less than a trailblazer, playing a crucial role in managing more than a decade of European and global crises.”
During her chancellery, Merkel “weathered recessions, geopolitical conflicts, financial crises and now the Covid-19 upheaval,” said David Marsh, chairman of the Official Monetary and Financial Institutions Forum, a London-based think tank, in an analysis. “Her stamina, ruthlessness and esteem are not in doubt.”
In her absence, there’s a chance the EU will become less German-centered, more divided and cacophonous. Of course, there are many in Europe who’d like to see EU affairs less directed by Germany, which has resisted deeper integration and stands accused of economic domination. But there are risks too: An EU without Merkel could stumble rudderless from crisis to crisis.
An important early clue about who might be the next chancellor of Germany comes on Sunday when voters in the states of Rhineland-Palatinate and Baden-Wuerttemberg go to the polls.
A poor showing by Merkel’s party in the elections would be a setback for the man considered her most likely successor, a 60-year-old politician named Armin Laschet, who is seen as continuing Merkel’s centrist legacy.
Laschet, a jovial consensus builder, was chosen as the CDU’s chairman in January in a contest that saw him narrowly defeating Friedrich Merz, a pro-business corporate lawyer representing the right-wing and anti-Merkel wing of the party. Laschet, who trained as a lawyer and worked as a journalist before entering politics, is the head of Germany’s most populous state, North Rhine-Westphalia.
“Laschet bested his rivals by presenting himself as a trustworthy steward of a party and a country facing many uncertainties,” said Jackson Janes, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund, a Washington-based think tank, in a paper.
Outside of Germany, he’s largely unknown. Some of his stances appear liberal, such as his support for refugees, but he’s also opposed same-sex marriage – citing his Roman Catholic faith – and pushed to forbid Muslim girls from wearing headscarves in school.
On foreign affairs, he’s expressed some unorthodox views. He’s called for more cooperation with Russian President Vladimir Putin and even accused the United States of supporting the Islamic State group in the Syrian civil war, according to a 2014 tweet he wrote in response to John Kerry, the U.S. secretary of state at the time, who said the terrorist group “will be crushed.”
For a German politician, his support for a controversial gas pipeline being built between Russia and Germany, the Nord Stream 2 project, is not so unorthodox. There are fears the Kremlin will have more power to exert itself in Ukraine and elsewhere if the pipeline is approved for use. But Merkel has backed the project, saying it makes good business sense and will help Germany move away from nuclear power and coal.
For those who want Germany to become more assertive internationally, Laschet’s statements on foreign issues are cause for serious concern.
In Germany, a vigorous debate is going on about the country’s role in a crisis-ravaged world where American power is under strain. For many, it is time for Germany to boost its military spending and become a world leader ready to confront China and Russia, whether over human rights or unfair business practices, and uphold liberal democratic values.
“A new world order is sorely needed, and Germany, which flourished under the Pax Americana and, against all expectations, became a late-blooming, 20th-century success story, must play its part in establishing one,” wrote Michael Stürmer, a well-known right-wing German historian and journalist, in Die Welt, a German newspaper. “When it comes to security and protection, Germany needs to learn how to stand on its own two feet and make a respectable contribution on the world stage, even if this means a bit of pain, financial cost and a few disagreements.”
Noah Barkin, a visiting fellow at the German Marshall Fund, said it is time for Germany to “make some uncomfortable strategic choices” in an uncertain world.
“Merkel has stifled rather than encouraged debate over Germany’s direction,” Barkin said in a piece for Foreign Policy. “She has often given her citizens the impression that they can carry on as they always have… There is a risk that Laschet, should he become chancellor, would adopt a similar non-committal approach.”
Domestically, one of the big questions facing the next chancellor will be over Germany’s policy to pass balanced budgets, its so-called “black zero” policy, and its constitutional rules limiting federal debt. These provisions against public spending, seen as central to Germany’s financial stability, may need to be scrapped or revamped if Germany wants to succeed in recovering from the economic shock of the coronavirus pandemic.
In better times, Germany kept within its budget restraints thanks to its strong economy, high tax revenues and falling interest rates.
“But the CDU was more than happy to take the credit, and portrays itself as the architect and guardian of Germany’s fiscal strength,” wrote Sophia Besch and Christian Odendahl, analysts at Centre for European Reform, a think tank. “In the process, the debt brake and adherence to fiscal rules have acquired a totemic importance to the party.”
They said Laschet will need to keep those spending restraints in place “to placate the right wing of his party” but that opposition to changing the rules may weaken after the elections, especially if the conservatives agree to form a coalition with the Greens.
“Sticking slavishly to the debt brake is not cost free: if more debt is ruled out, the CDU will have to come up with other plans to plug the fiscal gap,” they argued. “Pension or welfare cuts would not go down well, and nor would lower investment, let alone higher taxes.”
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.