Merkel’s last stand

The West Australian - - AGENDA - Peter Fos­ter Anal­y­sis

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.”

An­gela Merkel

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