Europe ponders prospect of life after Merkel

For more than a decade, Europe has been accustomed to relying on German leader Angela Merkel for strength and stability. But with her bid to form a new government in tatters, the continent may have to look elsewhere for leadership.

Markus Schreiber/AP
German Chancellor Angela Merkel arrives for a meeting of her Christian Union bloc at the Reichstag building in Berlin Nov. 20. Ms. Merkel pledged to maintain stability after the Free Democratic Party pulled out of talks on forming a new government with her conservative bloc and the left-leaning Greens.

Earlier this spring, when President Trump threatened to drop out of a major climate accord and berated fellow NATO members on his first trip to Europe, German Chancellor Angela Merkel rallied the continent.

“The times in which we can fully count on others are somewhat over,” she told a crowd in Munich. “We Europeans really must take our fate into our own hands.”

Implicit in that message was the reassurance that it was Ms. Merkel who would shepherd Europe in the reshuffled order.

But what if there is no Merkel?

Month-long negotiations in Berlin to form a coalition government after September’s federal election collapsed Sunday night. Germany found itself in uncharted waters, facing its worst political crisis since World War II. Many have begun to see Merkel as a weakened caretaker chancellor with an uncertain future.

German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier has called on the political parties to resume coalition talks. If they cannot reach agreement, he seems likely to call fresh elections.

The crisis undermines Merkel’s stature after 12 years in office that have made her a crucial pillar of the European Union, and some observers call it an important wake-up call about the new political realities facing Europe. Just as the EU adjusted to a disinterested America under Barack Obama and later a defiant one under President Trump, it may have to get used to life without the continent’s de facto leader, they say.

“People are slowly getting used to the idea that there will be life after Merkel, and Europe has to get used to this idea also,” says Roland Freudenstein, policy director of the Wilfried Martens Center for European Studies, a think tank in Brussels.

A reality check

The crisis in Europe’s economic powerhouse has struck at a delicate moment for Europe. The EU is in the middle of complex and rancorous negotiations with London over Britain’s exit from the Union; extreme right wing, anti-EU political parties remain a force in many countries; the euro-zone needs reform to strengthen its common currency; and though the flow of migrants has slowed, it has not dried up.

On all these fronts, Germany has come to be seen as the indispensable nation, whose decisions shape European debate.

Paul Nolte, a professor of contemporary history at Free University Berlin, says the instability in Germany is certainly not good for Europe. Yet he also sees it as a reality check. “It works against the myth of Germany the strong man, and Merkel the strong woman of Germany,” which he says he has seen oft-repeated during his recent academic year as a visiting professor at Oxford University.

“I’ve often been irritated about how much trust and expectation is being projected onto Germany and Merkel. I think it’s good to see Germany in a way being shrunk to its real size and not blown up to some mythical dimension,” he suggests.

It’s also time, he says, for other member states to step up, notably France.

New French President Emmanuel Macron is keen to take on new responsibilities. After winning office on a strongly pro-EU platform, he has voiced grand visions for Europe including a European finance ministry, continent-wide taxes and a common military force.

But none of those ideas will come to anything without German support. That support – uncertain even with Merkel in office – is now firmly on hold.

“The expectations of French-German-leadership in the EU are frozen,” says Thomas Jäger, professor of international politics at the University of Cologne. “There will not be a new dynamic in the EU without these two states working closely together.”

It is unclear still how or when a new German government might emerge, given the apparently irreconcilable differences among potential coalition partners from left and right that torpedoed the talks.

A new political landscape

An opinion poll on Monday showed 45 percent of voters favoring new elections and 49 percent believing that Merkel should run again, which she has said she would do.

But even if she prevails, the Chancellor knows that her party made its worst electoral showing since 1949 partly because the far-right, anti-foreigner Alternative for Germany did better than ever before, entering parliament for the first time.

For the political analyst Mr. Freudenstein, this is no more than the “normalization” of German politics, undergoing the same changes as other European nations that have have contended with pressure from far-right parties for decades. “We are only becoming more like our neighbors,” he says.

Philipp Wittrock, writing on the German website Spiegel Online, says the nation’s anxiety is compounded by the responsibility Germany feels as the leader of Europe. For that reason the nation must stay calm, he cautions. “The country has to endure uncertainty for a while, without forgetting the seriousness of the situation, but also without panicking," he argues.

Joerg Forbrig, fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the US in Berlin, is optimistic that Germany, and Europe, will ride the current crisis out. “This is a political problem,” he points out. “As novel as this situation may be, this is not instability. Even without a government at the moment, this country is perfectly functional.”

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