(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.