By TERESA TURKHEIMER
On the eve of Germany’s accession to the Presidency of the Council of the EU, Angela Merkel explained her plan for the future of the European Union– a Union tackling its biggest crisis yet. “The German Presidency’s top priority is to see Europe emerge from the crisis united and stronger. But we don’t merely want to stabilise Europe for the short term. That would be too little… We want a new beginning for Europe.” In such uncertain times, Chancellor Merkel’s second rotation into the Presidency may have come at the perfect time. Many would agree that her leadership, particularly within the EU, is both immeasurable and undisputed. However, as 2021 looms over the horizon, the end of Merkel’s chancellorship, like a Sword of Damocles, hangs unnervingly over the future of the EU. What are we to expect once Europe’s pillar of cooperation, integration, and unity departs?
As a result of the coronavirus pandemic, the election for leader of Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union has been postponed to December, and as the deadline slowly creeps up, German media are speculating about possible successors. Will it be Norbert Röttgen, long-serving CDU politician famous for his dedication towards environmental issues? Or Armin Laschet, liberal-conservative minister of the most populous state in Germany? Beyond the leadership race within the CDU, the future leader will also face a difficult political scenario. Recent polls show there is strong public approval of Germany’s CDU in next year’s elections, particularly after Merkel’s successful response to the coronavirus pandemic. However, over the last few years, Germany has seen a rise in the support for extreme political parties such as the right-wing Alternative for Germany, which saw an increase in seats after the Bundestag elections of 2017, using topics such as mass immigration and the aftermath of the Euro crisis – issues Merkel took reign of within the EU – to gather public support. This shift highlights the fact that after a long, virtually unchallenged, 13 year rule under Merkel, Germans are prepared for change. As a result of this volatility, Germany could certainly see a change in governance or a change in its well-established stability in next year’s elections, particularly given its proportional electoral system. With big shoes to fill, there is a chance German politics could fall into competitive disarray.
What could this mean for the EU? There is no doubt that over the past decade Merkel was able to project stability and authority within the EU because of the void of opposition at home. Now that Germany’s political climate is more fragile, and the public is longing for a change, the respect of the next German Chancellor within the EU could start to chip away. France may certainly take advantage of this vacuum of instability. Within Franco-German relations, Germany has always had the upper hand, not only because of its overall power and influence, but also because of Merkel’s own experience and expertise within the EU itself. As a fresh, new, and perhaps cautious, chancellor takes the stage, Macron may use this opportunity, for example, to push through his ‘revolutionary’ proposal for a Eurozone budget, a plan Merkel has supported but not committed to through and through.
A similar situation could develop within foreign policy. Merkel’s role as de facto EU spearhead has been respected, or at least acknowledged, by many state leaders. But at a time when Brexit has not yet come to fruition, when Russia’s aggression is increasing, when China’s power is rising, and when the United States is in political turmoil, a fresh-faced Chancellor could risk being overpowered by foreign leaders. More importantly, however, the EU will lose its key proponent of the European project. The EU has tackled innumerable crises in the past decade – the wave of mass migration, the rise of terrorism, the Euro crisis, the shock of the Brexit vote, the rise of nationalism, and more – and under her leadership, however popular or unpopular her policies may have been, Merkel maintained steady leadership throughout. As Karnitschnig writes, “others may have built Europe, but it was Merkel who had the arguably more difficult task of holding it together.” Her departure could not only risk damaging Germany’s credibility as the effective leader of the EU, but it could also risk the stability, and possibly the future, of the European project itself.
There is no doubt that Merkel’s exit will be felt immensely within the European Union. However, it is not yet 2021, and we must not forget that Germany enjoys a unique hegemonic role as the EU’s economic powerhouse and fundamental backbone of the Union, regardless of who the chancellor is. Merkel’s star may be waning, but she still has months until leaving office, and with Germany’s accession to the Presidency of the Council of Europe, she can dictate the trajectory of the Union at least for the next eighteen months.
IMAGE - Flickr (EU2017EE Estonian Presidency)