Merkel a hard act to follow at a time when unity is key for the EU
- German chancellor has made the right decision to move aside for a new generation of leaders. But whoever replaces her has to bear in mind the responsibilities involved
Germany has a vital role in ensuring European Union stability. Angela Merkel has done that admirably during her 13 years at the helm of the grouping’s most economically powerful nation with pragmatism, moderation and decency. Her announcement that she will step down as head of the centre-right Christian Democratic Union next month and not seek another term as chancellor in 2021 has therefore been met with disquiet. Those seeking to succeed her have to keep her qualities in mind and be willing to work as much for their nation as European unity.
Merkel’s decision was not surprising. Her party and its political partners lost ground in elections in 2017 and the erosion has continued in recent state polls in Hesse and Bavaria. At fault may well be her decency; her decision in 2015 to open Germany’s doors to refugees from Syria and elsewhere alarmed voters, who have since been shifting support to the far right and left of politics. The two-party system that has served Germany so well since the second world war has been replaced by a fragmented landscape, making coalition-building increasingly difficult.
Taking charge of the CDU in such circumstances will be challenging. But succeeding Europe’s most prominent politician will also not be easy; Merkel has had to navigate the global rise of populists in the EU, deal with the uncertainties of US President Donald Trump and the muscle-flexing of Russian leader Vladimir Putin and be a champion of free trade, the multilateral system and globalisation. She has done so with Britain leaving the EU, Italy and Hungary pushing the grouping’s rules, pressure from Barcelona to secede from Spain and criticism of her insistence of austerity for Greece. The strong leadership she has shown has made it natural for China to turn to her for support and on matters European.
Twelve candidates have so far come forward to replace her as party chief, but only three are believed to have a realistic chance of winning: conservative Health Minister Jens Spahn; Merkel’s favoured successor, party secretary general Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer; and pro-market liberal Friedrich Merz. The campaign will give them the opportunity to show their credentials and lay out their values and how they see Germany’s place in Europe and the world. Whoever wins has to share Merkel’s pro-unification view of a strong EU.
Merkel intends to remain as chancellor for another two years, but there is no certainty that she will be able to keep the job. The other party in the governing coalition, the Social Democrats, intends to review the alliance next year and infighting on both sides is spreading. The chancellor has made the right decision to move aside for a new generation of leaders. But whoever replaces her has to bear in mind the responsibilities involved.