Merkel’s exit could shake up Eu­rope

With the Ger­man Chan­cel­lor not seek­ing re-elec­tion, the bat­tle over the ide­o­log­i­cal di­rec­tion of Eu­rope will in­ten­sify

The Hindu Business Line - - THINK - VIDYA RAM NYT

Ever one to do things on her own terms, An­gela Merkel’s an­nounce­ment that she would not be seek­ing re-elec­tion as party leader later this year, or run again for Chan­cel­lor in 2021, caught many ob­servers off guard. Her party, the Chris­tian Demo­cratic Union (CDU), and its ally, the Chris­tian So­cial Union (CSU), had just been trashed in re­gional elec­tions in Hesse (home to Ger­many’s fi­nan­cial cap­i­tal Frank­furt) and Bavaria (the largest Ger­man state by area). But con­trary to the worst fears, both held on as the largest par­ties.

A full-fledged de­feat in ei­ther would have made a Merkel de­par­ture — dur­ing her fourth term as Chan­cel­lor — pretty much in­evitable. But she chose the mo­ment af­ter th­ese re­gional elec­tions — seen as a bell­wether of sen­ti­ment across much of the coun­try — to take a step that many lib­er­als and Euro­pean stal­warts across the con­ti­nent will have been ex­pect­ing at some stage over the next cou­ple of years and dread­ing.

An­nounc­ing her de­ci­sion at the end of Oc­to­ber, she ad­mit­ted that the Hesse re­sults had in­deed been in­flu­enced by ris­ing dis­con­tent to­wards her gov­ern­ing coali­tion. She said she hoped her de­par­ture — af­ter 13 years as Chan­cel­lor and 18 as leader of her party — would end the bit­ter in­fight­ing that had tar­nished the cen­tre/cen­tre-right’s abil­ity to gov­ern.

The com­pe­ti­tion to be her suc­ces­sor — which had al­ready be­gun in­for­mally — jump-started, with the po­ten­tial to take Ger­many and Eu­rope more widely in rather dif­fer­ent direc­tions. While Merkel has steered clear of any of­fi­cial en­dorse­ments, her pro­tégé is 56-year-old An­negret Kramp-Kar­ren­bauer, the party’s gen­eral sec­re­tary who shares Merkel’s vi­sion of keep­ing the CDU on the cen­tre track, fol­low­ing on from the ap­proach that Merkel had her­self adopted in re­cent years. She has stuck firmly to this ap­proach, de­spite the pres­sures of the far right that have led oth­ers within the party to push for a move to clamp down on im­mi­gra­tion.

The chal­lengers

Ear­lier this week, Kramp-Kar­ren­bauer set out her vi­sion for a new chap­ter for Ger­many where “peo­ple feel at home here,” Reuters re­ported her as say­ing. How­ever, there are oth­ers also stand­ing who would seek to re­verse this di­rec­tion of the party — in par­tic­u­lar, lead­er­ship con­tender and health min­is­ter Jens Spahn who has been a fierce critic of many of Merkel’s most pro­gres­sive moves, in­clud­ing to open Ger­many’s borders to hun­dreds of thou­sands of refugees, with plans to re­turn the party firmly to the right.

An­other long-stand­ing chal­lenger (in­clud­ing from when she first took of­fice) is Friedrich Merz, an­other fierce critic and ri­val of Merkel.

How long Merkel re­mains as chan­cel­lor be­yond party elec­tions set for De­cem­ber will likely de­pend on who wins the lead­er­ship con­test: a vic­tory for ei­ther Spahn or Merz would be seen as a di­rect re­jec­tion De­fender of a lib­eral and tol­er­ant Eu­rope

of the di­rec­tion Merkel has taken her party in re­cent years and would leave her lit­tle choice but to stand down swiftly.

The bat­tle for the lead­er­ship of the CDU comes at a time that Ger­many has been riven by vastly dif­fer­ent ide­olo­gies and pulls as has much of Eu­rope.

While it is the Al­ter­na­tiv For Deutsch­land — the far right, Is­lam­o­pho­bic party — that has cap­tured much in­ter­na­tional at­ten­tion (and is reg­u­larly used by those on the right else­where in Eu­rope to warn what the re­sult of an open borders pol­icy would be), this re­cent pe­riod has seen the rise of other more pro­gres­sive forces too, such as the Greens, which have made con­sis­tent in­roads as sup­port for the ma­jor main­stream par­ties has con­tin­ued to frac­ture (in the state of Baden-Wurt­tem­berg, for ex­am­ple, the Greens is the se­nior part­ner in a rul­ing coali­tion with the CDU).

In ad­di­tion, it is worth not­ing

that a shift fur­ther to the right in pol­icy terms (and par­tic­u­larly around is­sues such as im­mi­gra­tion) has done lit­tle to fur­ther the cause of the CSU (Merkel’s Bavar­ian al­lies), which per­formed poorly in the re­cent re­gional elec­tions.

Sig­nif­i­cantly, the SPD — the tra­di­tional party of the cen­tre-left — has also lost ground, in­clud­ing in the re­cent Hesse re­gional elec­tions, and has strug­gled to find di­rec­tion since the oust­ing of Mar­tin Schulz, its for­mer charis­matic leader.

How th­ese vary­ing fac­tors play out on the do­mes­tic level re­main to be seen.

Im­pact on Eu­rope

How­ever, what is cer­tainly the case is how im­pact­ful they will be on the rest of Eu­rope. While eco­nom­i­cally the Euro­pean Union is en­joy­ing a pe­riod of rel­a­tive sta­bil­ity, it re­mains to be seen how well the re­forms ini­ti­ated in the af­ter­math of the 2008 cri­sis pre­pare the re­gion for han­dling any fu­ture one — par­tic­u­larly given the vastly dif­fer­ing strengths of its economies.

There is also the bat­tle over the ide­o­log­i­cal di­rec­tion of Eu­rope: whether it will con­tinue to main­tain the lib­eral di­rec­tion pro­posed by the likes of Em­manuel Macron, with a vi­sion of fur­ther strength­en­ing the Euro­pean project, or whether the right-wing, anti-im­mi­grant, au­thor­i­tar­ian ap­proach be­ing cham­pi­oned, par­tic­u­larly in the east (ex­em­pli­fied by Hun­gary), wins out.

Merkel, while cau­tious around some of Macron’s pro­posed re­forms, has stood firmly as a proEuro­pean cham­pion and bul­wark against at­tempts to change fun­da­men­tal Euro­pean prin­ci­ples. Ear­lier this week, the EU’s chief ne­go­tia­tor on Brexit warned that the EU project was un­der threat with a ‘Farage in ev­ery coun­try,” me­dia re­ported: a ref­er­ence to the right-wing, anti-im­mi­gra­tion Bri­tish politi­cian and for­mer leader of the UK In­de­pen­dence Party.

The long-stand­ing transat­lantic al­liance — a key part of the Euro­pean or­der go­ing back decades — has also been chal­lenged, with the height­ened ten­sions par­tic­u­larly be­tween the US ad­min­is­tra­tion of Don­ald Trump and Ger­many (Trump’s crit­i­cisms of Ger­many have ranged from ac­cus­ing it of fail­ing to do enough for NATO to it be­ing at the mercy of Rus­sian en­ergy to its sup­port for refugees).

Merkel has also been a steady­ing and calm voice in the heated de­bate that has of­ten gov­erned dis­cus­sions be­tween Bri­tain and the EU’s other 27 mem­ber-states as it pre­pares to ne­go­ti­ate the terms of exit.

Given th­ese and other chal­lenges go­ing for­ward it is per­haps un­sur­pris­ing then that Merkel has cho­sen this mo­ment to an­nounce her plans to step down, giv­ing her suc­ces­sor as party leader to pre­pare the ground.

Uni­fy­ing voice

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