Merkel’s last stand
The waning of Angela Merkel’s political powers has been evident ever since her mishandling of the migrant crisis in 2015 resounded across Europe.
At home, the failure to control the arrival of nearly a million migrants in the space of a year splintered German domestic politics in a way that, until recently, many thought impossible, leaving Mrs Merkel at the helm of a listless, divided Government.
Then the same mistake sapped her authority in Europe as the anti-immigrant Right in Poland, Hungary and Italy faced down her demands for a show of solidarity: migrant resettlement quotas imposed by a majority vote were flatly refused.
Superficially, Mrs Merkel retained her moral authority, at least to the liberal elites that had crowned her “leader of the free world” after former US president Barack Obama left the stage. But there could be no mistaking that her actual authority had suffered.
Anecdotally that was visible, say officials, at last October’s European Council summit dinner when Mrs Merkel made an awkward intervention on Brexit, calling for more “flexibility”, only to leave her fellow leaders nonplussed.
“The truth is that she no longer commands the room like she once did,” one observer of such summits said. “Everyone knew she is on the way out, sooner or later.”
That was before the announcement by Mrs Merkel that she would give up the leadership of her Christian Democrat party, a move forced upon her by opposition from within her own ranks after a string of dreadful election results. Nothing weakens a leader like setting a timetable for their own departure, so while jockeying for the succession begins at home, Europe inevitably starts to contemplate a future without a woman who, whatever her recent failings, is of a different stature from her peers.
“Even now, she still has the moral authority on the EU stage to knock heads together,” Charles Grant, the director of the Centre for European Reform, said. “Just look around the table of EU leaders, they are political pygmies, apart from Emmanuel Macron who is weak at home, and (the Dutch Prime Minister) Mark Rutte, who only represents a middle-sized country. She’s still head and shoulders above all other leaders.”
Which is exactly why some fear the departure of such an incontrovertible political heavyweight may cause the continent’s political malaise to deepen further still.
“Populist governments in Italy, Austria, Hungary and Poland see Merkel’s gradual demise as a vindication of their political stance and further evidence of the gradual decline of establishment parties that propelled them to power,” Mujtaba Rahman, the head of the Europe practice at the Eurasia Group, said.
“In this sense, her decline will strengthen the perception that nationalists have momentum ahead of next year’s European elections.”
Already that election is being billed as a battle between the forces of nationalist-populism led by Hungary’s Viktor Orban and progressive liberalism led by Mr Macron, who has openly embraced the contest as a fight for the soul of Europe.
Paradoxically, it is this Manichean political landscape that those on Mrs Merkel’s side of the argument hope may yet prick her into uncharacteristic action.
Far from firing the starting gun on the “end of Europe”, they contend that Mrs Merkel’s looming departure should provide the catalyst for decisive action to defend the legacy left by her mentor Helmut Kohl.
And as Mrs Merkel contemplates her own legacy — tarnished as it is by the fallout from the migrant crisis and an approach to the eurozone crisis that condemned half of Europe to a depression — there is still time to act.
While the chancellor of Europe’s biggest economy is, by definition, a “heavyweight”, it will be many years before the next German leader carries the historical clout to which Mrs Merkel, as a 13-year veteran of her office, still lays claim.
That is why, with the European Union’s future seemingly on the line, assailed as it is by Donald Trump, Brexit and the rising forces of populism, some still harbour hopes that a legacy-hungry Mrs Merkel will make the most of whatever time she has left.
It may be a fantasy given the gridlock and inertia that appear to be built into EU politics at the moment but crises can often beget change.
And in Mr Macron, Mrs Merkel has a willing partner who is desperate to convert his sweeping European agenda into reality before his own plummeting popularity ratings render him a lame duck.
“She still has time to do something big for Europe,” Andrew Duff, the president of the federalist Spinelli Group, said. “Macron deserves a response, and a positive one, to his ambitious European agenda. The EU can’t go on for long as it is now, struggling to manage a range of complex challenges. The ball is in Angela’s court.”