Germany without Merkel: Where does Europe’s engine go next?

Why We Wrote This

Angela Merkel has set the path of Germany and Europe for two decades. But with the chancellor’s tenure nearing its end and her one-time heir apparent now out, the vision of Germany's future is suddenly unclear.

Michele Tantussi/Reuters
German Chancellor Angela Merkel (left center), German Health Minister Jens Spahn (center right), and Christian Democratic Union member Michael Grosse-Brömer chat as they arrive for a party meeting in Berlin on March 10, 2020. Ms. Merkel is set to leave office in 2021, and her selected heir as party leader has resigned, leaving the CDU's future wide open.

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Germany is at a political inflection point. Helmed by Chancellor Angela Merkel since 2000, the once formidable Christian Democratic Union has presided over a prosperous Germany that earned the world’s respect.

Now, with Dr. Merkel’s hand-picked successor, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, stepping down from party leadership and a battle for succession underway, the path forward for Germany’s political mainstream looks shaky. Will Germany’s next leader continue Ms. Merkel’s risk-averse status quo, or will he use the muscle that comes with being Europe’s largest economy to chart a new course for the country – and for Europe?

Stamping out the far-right is a domestic challenge that could easily consume the leadership; its rise in Germany was enabled, in part, by the issue of migration. In 2015, Dr. Merkel suspended a protocol about “safe” countries, which ultimately led to 1 million refugees entering the country.

There’s also a feeling that Germany has long-neglected domestic issues of great importance. But at the same time, Germany’s role in foreign affairs has become a real concern. Attention to national security has slipped, and Europe can no longer rely on the United States to police the Middle East.

Nina Schönefeld speaks of growing up in Berlin with a half-Korean best friend, and Turkish, Serbian, and South African classmates. Multicultural, inclusive, and forward-thinking: That’s the vision that she, as an artist and documentary filmmaker, believes should be Germany’s present and future.

There’s just a small problem: “The far-right wing has taken over these villages in Germany,” says Ms. Schönefeld, whose most recent film deals with a dystopic future in which autocrats pushed democracy underground. She’s worried Germany is headed in the same direction.

Germany’s traditional parties are partly to blame, says Ms. Schönefeld. “They’re too old-fashioned, too honest, too out-of-touch. They haven’t been knocking on doors,” she says. “You have whole villages with signs saying, ‘This is the way to Adolf Hitler’s birth town.’ They have to take care of this movement.”

Germany is at a political inflection point. Helmed by Chancellor Angela Merkel for nearly two decades, the once formidable Christian Democratic Union (CDU) has presided over a prosperous Germany that earned the world’s respect. But over the last decade, the far-right and far-left have steadily picked away at its flanks.

Now, with Ms. Merkel’s hand-picked successor, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, stepping down from party leadership and a battle for succession underway, the path forward for Germany’s political mainstream looks shaky. Will Germany’s next leader continue Ms. Merkel’s risk-averse status quo, or will he use the muscle that comes with being Europe’s largest economy to chart a new course for the country – and for Europe?

“It would be tempting for the next chancellor to fill his calendar with domestic issues,” says Jan Techau, director of the Europe Program at The German Marshall Fund. “But that’s a luxury that won’t happen. You need to be gutsy.”

Migration issues, whopping losses

Late-February elections in the city of Hamburg saw the CDU’s support whittled down to 11%, pegged by analysts as a 70-year low. Earlier in the year came another sign of weakness: The local CDU in the state of Thuringia aligned with the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) to help defeat a left-wing governor, the first time a mainstream party had aligned with the far-right since the Hitler era. The resulting furor ultimately had national repercussions, prompting Ms. Kramp-Karrenbauer to step down.

That local party’s defiance demonstrated not only Ms. Kramp-Karrenbauer’s tenuous grip on power, but also the complexity in figuring out what to do with extremist parties. In short, not everyone agrees. Meanwhile, after enjoying peak popularity in 2013, polling at more than 40%, the CDU is now logging support nationally around 26%.

Stamping out the far-right is a domestic challenge that could easily consume the leadership; its rise was enabled, in part, by the issue of migration. In 2015, Ms. Merkel suspended a protocol about “safe” countries, which ultimately led to 1 million refugees entering Germany.

Ms. Merkel’s party was seen as “too open and welcoming, and not tough enough,” says Mr. Techau, the analyst. “Both on security, but also not demanding enough from newcomers to integrate and learn the language.”

Neglect, and the rise of the Greens

Then there’s the feeling that Germany has long-neglected domestic issues of great importance, including failing to upgrade digital infrastructure that’s among the oldest and slowest in Europe. A recent survey from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, in fact, found that Germany ranked 29th out of 34 industrialized economies for internet speeds.

“We have a low degree of digitization, and in order to get a permit to run fibers from Point A to Point B, it takes forever,” says Yorck Otto, president of Germany’s leading business association for small and medium-sized companies.

“Crazy levels of bureaucracy,” he says, are also hindering startup culture and miring companies in months, if not years, of paperwork. Taxation rates in Germany are also among the highest in Europe, a point that comes up in almost every conversation about domestic politics.

Enter the Green Party, which has swept into the European mainstream with its timely emphasis on social justice and climate change. It has resounded with a progressive middle class that’s finding it increasingly difficult to identify with the older, more staid mainstream parties. The Greens are no longer the forbidding no-meat, no-car eco-nerds of yesteryear, and are now the second-largest party in Germany after the CDU.

“You can drive an SUV and vote Green and feel good about yourself,” says Josef Janning, a political scientist and former fellow of the European Council on Foreign Relations. “They’re cashmere sweaters now – soft and very convenient.”

“Extremist parties make everything more complicated,” continues Mr. Janning. “As they gain power it begs the question of whether to align with them, or ignore them. Squeeze them out, or integrate them?”

Meanwhile, Germany’s role in foreign affairs has become a real concern. Attention to national security has slipped under Ms. Merkel, and Europe can no longer rely on the United States to police the Middle East.

“Does Germany feel any sense of agency? To do the geopolitical hedging, taking fights, picking sides, and create outcomes?” asks Mr. Techau. “We’ve been shying away from that, but without Germany, Europe cannot move.”

Jockeying for position

A handful of men have raised a hand to rule Germany’s biggest party. A special conference to choose the next leader is scheduled for late April.

Armin Laschet, premier of Germany’s largest state of North-Rhine Westphalia, is the most moderate of the declared candidates, and is among the favorites to win. Health Minister Jens Spahn, a young politician who’s recently enjoyed high visibility dealing with COVID-19’s arrival in Germany, earlier announced his own ambitions, but Mr. Laschet recently recruited him as his potential deputy, with the idea that he shores up the conservative wing of the party. The former parliamentary-leader-turned-financier Friedrich Merz, who ran against Ms. Kramp-Karrenbauer in the last round, is the most business-friendly of the bunch. Ms. Merkel’s former environment minister, Norbert Röttgen, is also in, representing the least likely bid.

Jacob Turcotte/Staff, Photos by Reuters and AP

Thus begins months of “navel-gazing and soul-searching,” says Mr. Janning, the analyst, who expects a more “Germany-centric political rhetoric” in the future.

Yet others believe Germany’s next leaders should resist the temptation to focus only on domestic challenges. “Germany is aware of its responsibility for a strong Europe,” says former parliamentary journalist Verena Köttker, who remarks that closing ranks with the rest of Europe will increase the bloc’s negotiating power on everything from trade to peacemaking. “Only together can we face the USA, China, and Russia on equal footing.”

Timing is important. The businessman, Dr. Otto, says the CDU must figure out its organizational setup “now, not tomorrow. Now.” Even so, he expresses confidence in the bench that’s been waiting patiently. “The CDU has the ability, the power, the people, the talent to bring Germany forward within Europe and the world, though the world has gotten very difficult and violent.” Among other issues, Dr. Otto says he’d like to see stronger efforts to stamp out cyberterrorism against German companies.

“These are our voters”

On a cold February night, one week after Ms. Kramp-Karrenbauer’s resignation announcement, Bernd Pfeiffer joined a dozen CDU members in a backroom of a popular pub in Friedrichshain. It’s a district where the far-right has succeeded in plucking away CDU voters. The worry – as well as the excitement in the room – was obvious.

“It is our duty to do the hard work to push the right out so that they are no longer in parliament,” opined Mr. Pfeiffer. “These are our voters. These are our voices. We need them in order to be a people’s party again.”

The words “left” and “right” were dominant in the meeting, as the attendees mulled over what kind of leadership team might best tackle that task. One said that center parties are always strong when an outstanding personality shored up both the left and right flanks, such as legendary, blue-chip politicians Helmut Kohl and Franz Josef Strauss, respectively. The group murmured.

Later, in an interview, Mr. Pfeiffer said he’s working behind the scenes to make sure the CDU remembers its roots. Though he’s vowed never to join the far-right, Mr. Pfeiffer said his inflection point as a longtime CDU loyalist came over Ms. Merkel’s controversial decisions on immigration. “We have a strong asylum policy, and that’s great. But we also have 450 people a day who cross our borders without papers. And no one does anything.”

A tax adviser who grew up in a village outside Hamburg, Mr. Pfeiffer is president of the Values Union in Berlin, a faction within the party that advocates for conservatism. Since the party’s leadership has been in question, his phone has been ringing. And ringing. “Twenty-four hours a day,” he says, giving his black Samsung a concerted shake. “Hundreds and hundreds of messages. Offering support, wanting to join.”

His excitement is palpable, but so is that of Ms. Schönefeld, the artist, whose studio is just a mile or so west of his district. Like Mr. Pfeiffer, she also talks about reforming high taxes on the middle class, but she also speaks of fixing the education system. “You have to refresh the whole system. You have to start from scratch.”

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