Merkel’s exit threat­ens EU unity



In of­fice for 13 years, she has been Europe’s most pow­er­ful leader, a pres­ence so syn­ony­mous with sta­bil­ity that Ger­mans call her Mutti, or Mother

Chan­cel­lor An­gela Merkel has been a seem­ingly in­vin­ci­ble fig­ure in Ger­man pol­i­tics. In of­fice for 13 years, she has been Europe’s most pow­er­ful leader, a pres­ence so syn­ony­mous with sta­bil­ity that Ger­mans call her Mutti, or Mother. So it was a fa­mil­iar sight on Mon­day to see her live on tele­vi­sion, un­til she asked Ger­mans to do some­thing far less fa­mil­iar, and “get ready for the time af­ter me.”

But Merkel’s de­ci­sion to quit as Ger­man chan­cel­lor in 2021 spells un­cer­tainty and pos­si­bly paral­y­sis for the Euro­pean Union as pop­ulists rally, diplo­mats and an­a­lysts warned. Af­ter her an­nounce­ment yes­ter­day, the EU is even less likely to bridge di­vi­sions on key top­ics such as mi­gra­tion or Eu­ro­zone re­form in the com­ing months, they say.

“No­body is go­ing to lis­ten to her any­more in Europe. She has taken her­self im­me­di­ately out of the game,” said Se­bas­tian Mail­lard, di­rec­tor of the Jac­ques Delors In­sti­tute think tank. Mail­lard was re­fer­ring not only to Merkel’s de­ci­sion to quit as chair of her party be­fore step­ping down later as chan­cel­lor, but also to not run for an EU po­si­tion af­ter­ward. “It’s a tough blow for Europe,” Mail­lard told AFP.

Call for early elec­tions

Few ob­servers be­lieve she could hang on un­til the end of her term, spec­u­lat­ing that new elec­tions could be held as early as next year. The chan­cel­lor’s de­ci­sion makes clear that nei­ther she nor her coun­try are im­mune to the forces that have re­ordered pol­i­tics across the con­ti­nent: The cra­ter­ing of the po­lit­i­cal cen­tre; the rise of pop­ulist forces; the blow­back from the mi­gra­tion cri­sis; and a re­draw­ing of the po­lit­i­cal fault lines away from the his­tor­i­cal left-right di­vide to­ward a bat­tle be­tween lib­eral pro-Euro­pean val­ues and their na­tion­al­ist po­lar op­po­site.

Spec­u­la­tion had grown for months about Merkel’s exit from the po­lit­i­cal stage, so the an­nounce­ment was no sur­prise, but it still came as a shock. It un­der­scored the new fragility of Ger­man pol­i­tics and the great un­cer­tainty for a Europe with­out Merkel at the helm. “Ger­many has been a cra­dle of po­lit­i­cal sta­bil­ity over the last decade, but this now looks to be over,” said Ste­fan Koop­man, an econ­o­mist at Rabobank.

But Merkel said yes­ter­day that her planned exit would not hurt her in­flu­ence on the in­ter­na­tional stage in the run-up to her depar­ture. “I think that noth­ing will change on my bar­gain­ing po­si­tion in in­ter­na­tional ne­go­ti­a­tions,” she said.

Merkel’s an­nounce­ment came hours af­ter her party recorded the worst elec­tion re­sults since 1966 in the western state of Hesse, and two weeks af­ter her con­ser­va­tive al­lies in Bavaria re­ceived a sim­i­lar blow.

Merkel’s re­treat, an­a­lysts say, could mark the be­gin­ning of a new era not just for Europe’s big­gest coun­try but for the Con­ti­nent it­self.

It could leave Ger­many more un­sta­ble and un­able to take the lead in Europe at a time when lead­er­ship is badly needed on an ar­ray of top­ics — from Brexit to Italy’s con­tro­ver­sial bud­get plans. “Europe is ex­pe­ri­enc­ing a se­ri­ous in­ter­nal cri­sis,” an EU of­fi­cial noted. “There is a lack of lead­er­ship in Europe. Most of the lead­ers are in trou­ble.”

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