The Fall of the ‘European Iron Lady’

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The regional election in Hessen, held at the end of October, saw the seemingly impossible – the beginning of the end of Angela Merkel. Following her party’s poor performance, she made a two-fold announcement. On the one hand, she would not be running for re-election at her annual party congress in December, where the Christian-Democrats (CDU) will be electing its new chair. On the other, and most importantly, she would be standing down as chancellor after her current term expired, not seeking re-election in 2021.

Appointed CDU (Christian-Democratic Union) chair in 2000 and elected chancellor in 2005, Merkel’s announcement was a political earthquake. Described by The Telegraph as “Europe’s Iron Lady”, she had survived three French presidents, three American ones and five German federal presidents, being dubbed, by the BBC, a “political survivor” of another era. Yet although undoubtedly surprising, it was not wholly unexpected. Not only has her party, for the past year, consistently attained its worst electoral results in decades: it is doubtful whether, in 2017, she wanted to run for re-election in the first place. She had always hinted that three terms was the perfect amount of time. It is likely, writes Heribert Prantl, that she saw it as her duty in a world which had just seen the election of Donald Trump and the triumph of Brexit, and which was increasingly turning to far-right parties – including in her own country, where the Alternative für Deutschland (Alternative for Germany, AfD) entered the Bundestag with over 90 MPs. She believed, as she always did, that things would eventually sort themselves out: and there she would be, with her famous Merkel-Raute (the name given to her characteristic hand gesture), to lead the country and the continent out of yet another crisis.

In an article published in 2017, The Economist described Merkel in three ways: ethical, not ideological; reactive, not programmatic; and detached, rather than engaged. “A bit liberal, a bit Christian-social, a bit conservative”, as she described herself, she became famous for two things. The first one was sitting things out – waiting to see where public mood swung before making policy choices. Her second one was what The Guardian calls “asymmetric demobilisation”: in other words, taking opposition parties’ leading policies and making them her own. In this way she triggered the Energiewende (abandoning nuclear power after Fukushima), introduced many of the social policies of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), her coalition partner at the time,  and, without her MPs’ knowledge, announced a vote of conscience would be held on the question of legalising gay marriage – which she himself voted against. By doing so, the chancellor managed, for over a decade, to, at the same time, narrow the opposition’s playing field and appeal to a larger voter base herself.

The ‘European Iron Lady’

In Europe, Merkel’s dominance was forged during the eurozone crisis. The daughter of a Lutheran pastor, she was a firm believer in the virtues of hard work and savings. During the banking crisis, those beliefs were epitomized by the image of the “Swabian housewife”, which she so famously employed in 2008. It was that attitude which underlay the strict austerity policies she imposed on Southern Europe, unwaveringly supported by her finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble and backed by the so-called troika (a decision group formed by the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund). So strict an image did she portray that in Spain, Portugal, Italy and Greece, posters comparing Merkel to Hitler became a common feature in anti-austerity demonstrations.

This unquestioned deference to German economic orthodoxy, her critics claim, is the reason for many of Europe’s present evils. In Italy and Greece, it was a direct cause of the surge of populism. In her own country, they argue, it led to the growth of a xenophobic Right, epitomised by BILD’s headlines “Sell your islands, you broke Greeks” and “We pay, they complain: kick them out once and for all!” and which did not understand her leniency towards those they considered were living off the Germans. The AfD’s first campaign, that for the 2013 European election, was in fact largely based on this belief, its star promise being to kick Portugal, Greece and Spain out of the Eurozone.

This was no less of a political misjudgement, her critics state, than her political magnum opus: the “open borders” attitude she adopted towards the 2015 refugee crisis, in which over one million refugees were admitted into Germany. The reasons for said policy remain unclear. Although it is likely that there was a genuine desire to help alleviate the crisis, there seems to have been more long-term planning than she is given credit for. In a country with a rapidly ageing population, it was widely believed that carefully monitored immigration was the best way of easing pressure on the labour market and sustaining German pensions.

As Stefan Wagstyl argues, only time will tell whether Merkel’s policy was correct. It did, however, mark the beginning of her sense of political infallibility. Her liberal stance towards immigration was widely contested within her party, led to a tooth and nail fight with her home secretary Horst Seehofer and, for the first time since World War II, allowed a party to the CDU’s right, namely the AfD, to enter the Bundestag. Indeed, the AfD rather optimistically took credit for Merkel’s departure: according to federal spokesman Alexander Gauland, it would not have happened without them, and it was to be celebrated that Germany would soon see the end of the “refugee Chancellor”.

Political consequences in Germany

It remains, as former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder has pointed out, to be seen whether Merkel will stay in office 2021. Regardless of whether she is forced out before, however, it seems obvious that her departure will mark a turning point in German politics. Yet what specific effects can it have on the country’s main political actors?

The grand coalition’s weakness is not new: the disastrous performance of the SPD and the in the Hessen regional election was only one of many in the past year. Already after the Bavarian election, in which the SPD lost half their votes and became the second-smallest party in the chamber, it was suggested that the Social Democrats would pull out, which could trigger a general election. Andrea Nahles, the leader of the SPD, stated that Bavaria had been a turning point, and that “the style of [federal] government must change”. Following the Hessen election, she became even more adamant, arguing that “something” had to change within the party – a message some have taken to mean a possible shift to the Left in a desperate attempt to regain its electorate. Whether this will have an impact is, according to Stefan Hoffmann, of the Konrad-Adenauer Stiftung, doubted: there is hardly any political space left for a party whose policies have been appropriated by the Left, the Greens and the AfD.

Whether Merkel’s departure will shift her own party to the right will largely depend on who is elected party chairman in December. Of the three main candidates so far, health minister Jens Spahn would be the most likely to cause this shift: a rising right-wing star within the party, he has repeatedly pointed towards the “disordered” refugee influx as the main reason for his party’s loss of public support. If the party does not have a “serious” debate about its stance towards refugees, he argues, it could meet its demise. In a recent article in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Spahn also called for a “new” CDU – one which could defeat the “modern populism” of the Greens: his goal, he argues, is not to shift the party to the right, but to promote “healthy” and “honest” values based on “common sense”.

The other two candidates, CDU secretary-general Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer (often referred to as AKK) and former parliamentary spokesperson Friedrich Merz, are seen as more orthodox. Nicknamed “mini-Merkel”, Kramp-Karrenbauer is seen as a consensus candidate and Merkel’s ideal successor, favoured both by the right, who appreciate her support for traditional family values, and by the left, mainly due to her support of trade unions and workers’ rights. Encouraged to run by former finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble, who, it is rumoured, is running his campaign, Friedrich Merz represents the party’s more conservative pro-business and economically liberal faction. Once important within the party, he was forced out of his post as head of the CDU’s parliamentary party in 2009, and his influence, as the Financial Times notes, has waned as Merkel’s power increased. Were he to be elected, it has been suggested that he could, by moving to the party to the right, allow the SPD to regain some of the political centre.

Merkelism is on its way out. The politics of sitting it out, it seems, has not been enough to steer the Chancellor out of this crisis. On the domestic front, states Hoffmann, it seems likely that the impact of her departure will be less severe than it is currently believed, and that some form of Merkelism will survive. In Europe, however, the impact of her departure is likely to be more drastic. Six months before the next European election, both Germany and Europe seem at a junction. Merkel’s influence has been such that the route the EU takes in the next years will very much depend on who replaces her as CDU Chair –and how long she manages to hold on to her Chancellorship. For all her political misjudgements, which have been as blatant as they have severe, Merkel’s departure seems bad news for an increasingly polarized European Council.