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Angela Merkel’s gradual retreat: What does it mean for Europe?

Chancellor Merkel’s speech at the European Parliament in Strasbourg on 13 November was probably her last one writes Julian Rappold.

It was also one of her last opportunities to give an impulse to the EU reform debate or frame the discussions ahead of the European elections in May 2019. Expectations were high. Since her announcement to step down as leader of the CDU, there has been much speculation about what her gradual retreat from the political stage will mean for Europe.

A much-awaited speech

Entering the late autumn of her political career, some had hoped that Merkel would provide a bold vision on the future of Europe. They were mistaken. Too vague did she remain on the crunch points of the current reform debate, repeating German red lines instead of sketching out concrete reform proposals. Picking up on Emmanuel Macron’s proposal to establish a ‘European army’ was her sole attempt to show some goodwill on a reform proposal that may not even fly in the long run. Meanwhile, she once again exposed her scepticism at Eurozone reforms that would arguably require immediate action.

Merkel’s speech underlines that not much impetus on Europe can be expected from Germany in the short term. The Chancellor knows that it will be almost impossible to push for painful compromises at home – a necessary precondition for any consensus at the European level. Significant progress on Eurozone reform at the upcoming December EU Summit will not happen. In any case, the chances for an agreement among the EU27 and the Euro19 were already slim given Berlin’s timid response to President Macron’s reform proposals so far and the growing polarisation within the European Council. So major political decisions will have to be delayed yet again, this time until the next EU institutional cycle starts at the end of 2019.

All eyes on the CDU party congress

All eyes are now on the CDU party congress of 7-8 December where her successor will be elected. The CDU’s leadership contest will fully absorb Berlin’s domestic debate. The outcome of the party’s vote will determine whether Merkel will be able to stay chancellor until the end of her term in 2021, giving Europe more clarity on Germany’s future course. The party’s Secretary General Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, Health Minister Jens Spahn, and former parliamentary group leader Friedrich Merz are already waiting in the wings.

The election of Merkel’s protégée Kramp-Karrenbauer would allow for both political renewal and continuity with good chances for a constructive cohabitation between her and the current chancellor – at least for the foreseeable future. Merz and Spahn have a more conservative profile and have been very critical of Merkel’s liberal course. Should one of them be elected, it is unlikely that Merkel would remain chancellor for a very long time. Her eroding political authority will prevent her from dealing simultaneously with a party leader who does not entirely back her and a quarrelsome ‘grand coalition’. Such a constellation could even further widen the divergence with the SPD. Future conflicts on policy priorities would thus have to be expected.

But this does not rule out a brief co-existence between Merz or Spahn as party leader and Merkel as chancellor. Any candidate who wants to succeed Chancellor Merkel will need to come to an arrangement with her, at least temporarily. In the end, only her resignation or a constructive vote of no confidence can pave the way for a new chancellorship.

Still committed

For Europe, Merkel’s departure from the political scene will not create a leadership vacuum, nor will it mark a turning point in the CDU’s or Germany’s approach to the EU. For Berlin, the commitment to European integration hinges on “enlightened self-interest”, as Merkel framed it in her speech at the European Parliament. For historical, constitutional, historical, geopolitical and economic reasons, Germany will continue to embrace its leadership role in the EU. German governments have traditionally not framed their approach to Europe along party lines but on the grounds of more fundamental national interests. This stance also builds on the broad pro-European consensus of the political mainstream and the support of a majority of German society, which acknowledges the economic and political benefits of EU membership. It is unlikely Merkel’s retreat will change anything about that.

Three candidates, little difference

All candidates campaigning to succeed Angela Merkel subscribe to this pro-European consensus. All three also intend to stick to the CDU line on crucial European issues.

Kramp-Karrenbauer, Merz and Spahn will remain sceptical toward proposals that imply higher levels of risk sharing at European level. Merz has already distanced himself from the idea of a European unemployment insurance, which he had previously supported. Likewise, they will all embrace the idea of stronger European defence cooperation to which Merkel also alluded in her European Parliament speech. On the issue of migration and asylum, however, the deep division within the CDU between the liberal pro-Merkel camp and the conservative faction critical of Merkel’s policy choices in 2015 can be seen among the candidates. Kramp-Karrenbauer is in favour of a continuation of Merkel’s migration policy, focusing not only on controlling the EU’s external borders but also on internal solidarity. Spahn and Merz, on the other hand, stand further to the right and will likely put greater emphasis on the securitisation of the EU’s borders and the externalisation of border management.

Angela Merkel has left her mark on Europe. As the longest-serving leader in the European Council, she has been a beacon of stability for the EU in a period of unprecedented crises. Her negotiation skills and steadfastness will be missed in an increasingly polarised and fragmented EU, despite all the criticism she received from European partners for her handling of the European debt and refugee crises. Germany will remain fully committed to the European project, and Merkel’s successor will most likely hold similar positions on major European policy issues. However, anyone following in her footsteps will have to work hard to earn the same European political stature Merkel has built since she took power in 2005. These are big shoes to fill.

Julian Rappold (Project Leader of ‘Connecting Europe’ and ‘FutureLab Europe’) for the European policy centre EPC). This article was first published by the EPC. More information can be found at 

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