An­gela Merkel’s long good­bye

Gulf Times - - COMMENT - By Joschka Fis­cher

With An­gela Merkel hav­ing an­nounced that she will step down as leader of the Chris­tian Demo­cratic Union (CDU) and not seek re­elec­tion as chan­cel­lor when her cur­rent term ends in 2021, Ger­many is ap­proach­ing a wa­ter­shed mo­ment. Since 1949, the coun­try has had only eight chan­cel­lors, which means that Merkel’s de­par­ture will be any­thing but an ev­ery­day oc­cur­rence. More­over, a change at the top in Ger­many is usu­ally ac­com­pa­nied by broader po­lit­i­cal and so­cial change.

Merkel’s de­ci­sion was not en­tirely un­ex­pected. Hav­ing elected her for the fourth time in Septem­ber 2017, Ger­man vot­ers were un­likely to give her a fifth term. Peo­ple tire of lead­ers over time. Even with­out her re­cent an­nounce­ment, it thus could have been as­sumed that Merkel’s cur­rent term would be her last.

But the on­go­ing trans­for­ma­tion of Ger­many’s do­mes­tic and for­eign­pol­icy po­si­tion is more im­por­tant than a change in lead­er­ship. In­ter­na­tional rup­tures are shak­ing the very foun­da­tions of Ger­many’s post-war democ­racy.

Un­der Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump, the United States has re­pu­di­ated the West and ev­ery­thing it stands for. On March 29, 2019, the United King­dom will leave the Eu­ro­pean Union. And to the east, China has emerged as a new global power.

More broadly, the world’s eco­nomic cen­tre of grav­ity is quickly shift­ing from the North At­lantic to East Asia. The dig­i­tal rev­o­lu­tion, big data, and ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence are chang­ing the way we work and live. And the EU’s in­ter­nal crises have not just con­tin­ued but in­ten­si­fied, while chronic tur­moil in the Mid­dle East and Africa rep­re­sents a per­sis­tent ex­ter­nal risk to Europe’s sta­bil­ity.

These and other de­vel­op­ments have shaken Ger­many’s once-firm for­eign­pol­icy foot­ing. For years, the coun­try’s eco­nomic model and se­cu­rity strat­egy have both cen­tred around in­te­gra­tion with the West and Ger­many’s role within the EU. But to­day’s chal­lenges re­quire a new strate­gic out­look. The ques­tion for the next chan­cel­lor will be: “Quo vadis, Ger­many?”

Wher­ever Ger­many is head­ing, one thing is al­ready clear: the tran­si­tion from Merkel to her suc­ces­sor will bring about a far-reach­ing re­or­gan­i­sa­tion of the coun­try’s party sys­tem. For decades, the cen­tre-right CDU (in al­liance with the Bavaria-based Chris­tian So­cial Union) and the cen­tre-left So­cial Demo­cratic Party have served as the two great guar­an­tors of po­lit­i­cal con­ti­nu­ity and sta­bil­ity. But, like main­stream par­ties across Europe, the CDU/CSU and the SPD are now in cri­sis. The SPD has lost so much sup­port that it may not sur­vive; and while the CDU/CSU is still the strong­est sin­gle force in Ger­man pol­i­tics, it is fac­ing a deep struc­tural chal­lenge.

Since 1949, the CDU/CSU’s “sis­ter-party” struc­ture has rou­tinely al­lowed it to se­cure the chan­cel­lor­ship as the largest party bloc in ma­jor­ity coali­tions. But in an en­larged, re­uni­fied Ger­many with seven sep­a­rate par­ties hold­ing seats in the Bun­destag, this ar­range­ment no longer works as well as it once did.

In the years pre­ced­ing Merkel’s first elec­tion as chan­cel­lor in 2005, Ger­many had been gov­erned by a coali­tion com­pris­ing the SPD and the Greens (in which I served as vicechan­cel­lor and for­eign min­is­ter). Dur­ing that pe­riod, Ger­many un­der­went a painful ad­just­ment as the wel­fare state was brought into line with the post-re­uni­fi­ca­tion re­al­i­ties of high un­em­ploy­ment and a new eco­nomic ge­og­ra­phy. At the same time, Ger­man for­eign pol­icy had to be ad­justed to ac­count for the coun­try’s new role in the con­text of the 1990s post-Yu­goslav wars, and to ad­dress the threat of in­ter­na­tional ter­ror­ism af­ter the at­tacks of Septem­ber 11, 2001.

Af­ter the fall of the Berlin Wall, re­uni­fi­ca­tion, and a pe­riod of high un­em­ploy­ment and seem­ingly end­less re­forms, Ger­mans had ex­pe­ri­enced quite enough ex­cite­ment. Merkel’s chan­cel­lor­ship was meant to put an end to all of that. Cool prag­ma­tism be­came the or­der of the day. With the econ­omy boom­ing, it seemed as though the sun was al­ways shin­ing and the skies were al­ways blue. Hover­ing above it all was “Mutti” (Mommy), sim­ply let­ting things take their course. Ger­man vot­ers saw lit­tle rea­son not to elect her three more times.

Now, the sunny days are gone. The emer­gence of a new global or­der presents pol­i­cy­mak­ers and politi­cians with weighty strate­gic ques­tions that can­not be ig­nored or de­ferred. Chief among them is what role Ger­many – and Europe – should carve out for it­self in the years to come. A decade hence, where will we as Euro­peans stand, and what will we stand for?

Merkel does not of­fer sat­is­fac­tory an­swers to such ques­tions. With her con­sum­mate prag­ma­tism, she has be­come her own worst en­emy. Even when she has made great – in­deed, his­toric – de­ci­sions, they have been based on nar­row, short-term po­lit­i­cal con­sid­er­a­tions. Merkel’s phas­ing out of Ger­many’s nu­clear power plants, sus­pen­sion of com­pul­sory mil­i­tary ser­vice, and re­sponses to the 2008 fi­nan­cial cri­sis were merely tac­ti­cal moves. The one ex­cep­tion came in 2015, when she took a moral stand and opened Ger­many’s doors to 1mn refugees.

Merkel’s ap­proach to the fi­nan­cial cri­sis would turn out to be her big­gest mis­take. At the time, she op­posed a joint Eu­ro­pean re­sponse, in­stead ad­vo­cat­ing na­tional-level mea­sures and mere co-or­di­na­tion among euro­zone gov­ern­ments. The en­tire Eu­ro­pean project has been off track ever since.

Of course, Merkel will be re­mem­bered as the chan­cel­lor of the “peace div­i­dend” and, pos­si­bly, as the last chan­cel­lor of the post-war (West) Ger­man party sys­tem. But Europe’s per­sis­tent cri­sis will now form part of her legacy as well, and it will pose a dif­fi­cult chal­lenge to her suc­ces­sors.

What comes next is any­one’s guess. Much will de­pend on whether Ger­many, to­gether with France, con­tin­ues to pur­sue its Eu­ro­pean mis­sion. – Project Syn­di­cate

Fis­cher, Ger­many’s for­eign min­is­ter and vice-chan­cel­lor from 1998 to 2005, was a leader of the Ger­man Green Party for al­most 20 years.

Ger­man Chan­cel­lor An­gela Merkel at­tends a pre­sen­ta­tion dur­ing her visit at the trade fair Dig­i­tal Sum­mit (Dig­i­tal Gipfel) in Nurem­berg, south­ern Ger­many, on De­cem­ber 4.

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