As Merkel de­parts, the pop­ulists keep com­ing

▶ The rise and fall of a bea­con of de­cency should sound alarm bells across the world

The National - News - - OPINION -

Over 48 hours this week, two sharply con­trast­ing images emerged, of­fer­ing a dis­turb­ing re­flec­tion of the cur­rent state of the world. They served as a re­minder of two ve­he­mently op­posed forces of light and dark­ness pulling the world in dif­fer­ent di­rec­tions. In Ger­many, Chan­cel­lor An­gela Merkel, of­ten dubbed the leader of the free world, an­nounced on Mon­day that she would be step­ping down this year as leader of her CDU party. Mean­while, thou­sands of miles away, in­cen­di­ary dem­a­gogue Jair Bol­sonaro was elected as Brazil’s next pres­i­dent. For years, Ms Merkel has been a bea­con of de­cency in a Europe be­set by re­ac­tionary na­tivism. But the on­go­ing col­lapse of cen­trism still found its way to her door. Steve Ban­non, the far-right for­mer ad­viser to US Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump, re­cently re­marked that “the pop­ulist re­volt now burns like a prairie fire from Europe to North Amer­ica to South Amer­ica”. With Mr Bol­sonaro’s rise and Ms Merkel’s fall, it is hard to dis­agree.

In ex­pe­dit­ing Ms Merkel’s depar­ture, dis­ap­point­ing elec­toral per­for­mances for her rul­ing coali­tion in Hesse and Bavaria this month and in fed­eral elec­tions last Septem­ber mark the end of an era for Ger­many, Europe and the world. Ms Merkel has al­ready served for an im­pres­sive 13 years and in­tends to stay on as chan­cel­lor un­til her term ends in 2021. But that will de­pend on who­ever her CDU elects to re­place her as party leader. The el­e­va­tion of Jens Spahn or Friedrich Merz – an an­tag­o­nist and outright op­po­nent re­spec­tively – could spell Ms Merkel’s ac­cel­er­ated fall. But the world should re­mem­ber that the Ger­man chan­cel­lor has served Europe well while oth­ers have sought to de­rail it. From Brexit to Italy’s down­turn, to the rise of Mr Trump and the in­tran­si­gence of Turk­ish pres­i­dent Re­cep Tayyip Er­do­gan and Rus­sia’s Vladimir Putin, Ms Merkel has of­ten shoul­dered the re­spon­si­bil­i­ties of Euro­pean lead­er­ship alone. To­day, lit­tle hap­pens in the bloc with­out Berlin’s ap­proval and so her demise is a blow to the Euro­pean project it­self.

For many across the world, Ms Merkel’s de­ci­sion af­ter 2015 to wel­come a mil­lion mi­grants to Ger­many while oth­ers in Europe were build­ing fences was her crown­ing achieve­ment. But for mil­lions of Ger­mans, it was her death knell. Three years on, around the world, the pop­ulists are win­ning. While Ms Merkel opened her arms to those flee­ing war, Mr Bol­sonaro pro­nounced them “scum of the earth” and drew more than 57 mil­lion votes. The lib­eral in­ter­na­tional or­der that dom­i­nated Europe fol­low­ing the Sec­ond World War is crum­bling. A fresh spot­light will be shone on French Pres­i­dent Em­manuel Macron, who rode a pro-EU wave to vic­tory but has been mired in in­ter­nal dis­putes since. There is a dan­ger that some­one deal­ing in ha­tred and fear might fill the vac­uum, jeop­ar­dis­ing the Euro­pean project. And fur­ther afield, the pop­ulists march on.

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