The End of the Merkel Era
German Chancellor Angela Merkel announced on Monday that she will be stepping down as the leader of her party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), in December and will not seek re-election in 2021.
Merkel has been Chancellor since 2005 and has led the CDU for 18 years. She will keep her position as Chancellor until the next federal elections but does not intend to hold any political office thereafter.
Merkel is recognized worldwide as the face of modern German politics, as a defender of the liberal world order with the Atlantic calling her “Europe’s most powerful leader and a one-woman bulwark against the onslaught of populism.”
Her influence extends beyond Germany to the rest of Europe, particularly in the sphere of economic policy. Merkel played a key role in shaping how the EU tackled the 2008 Financial Crisis. In 2013, Germany required that austerity measures — regulations that would reduce government spending or increase tax revenue — be imposed on countries like Greece, Spain, Italy and Portugal that were ravaged by debt.
She has also had considerable influence over European foreign policy in the past few years. For instance, she demanded that her European counterparts enforce economic sanctions on Russia for the conflict in Ukraine.
One of the apogees of the Chancellor’s rule was her decision to open Germany’s border to “nearly 1 million migrants and refugees” in 2015, indicating her support of a liberal international order. That same decision, however, was blamed for dividing her party and for creating more polarization within the German political landscape.
Merkel’s power and popularity in Germany have been waning, especially after the “inconclusive national elections” in 2017. Since last year, she has been struggling to keep a grip on her largely unstable government, a “grand coalition,” which almost collapsed twice since its formation. The recent regional elections were the last straw.
The CDU and the Social Democratic Party (SPD), the parties under her ruling coalition, lost significant support in Hesse, resulting in their “worst election results since 1996” in that state. Two weeks ago, the Christian Social Union (CSU), the CDU’s sister party in the state of Bavaria, also suffered crushing losses.
Merkel’s hold on power is alarmingly decreasing while the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party and the left-wing Greens are gaining more support. The decreasing support for Merkel’s government is indicative of great discontent for her policy positions, particularly regarding immigration, and shows that Germany was not spared from the recent wave of populism and nationalism that has hit Europe.
Merkel’s anticipated departure leaves Germany and Europe with a leadership vacuum. Over the years, under Merkel’s leadership, Germany has been a proponent for a cosmopolitan Europe and hailed as “a cradle of political stability” by economist Stefan Koopman.
Now, the country is expected to be “more inward-looking,” according to political analyst Leopold Traugott, a perspective that would subsequently shift the political paradigm in the EU. At a time in which Europe is already dealing with Brexit and the rise of right-wing populist leaders, uncertainty and instability could soon be increased further.