London Correspondent: The indispensable European has declared herself surplus to requirements. Last week Germany’s long-serving Chancellor, Angela Merkel, announced that she would be stepping down as the leader of the Christian Democratic Union party and would not lead it into the next election (due in 2021, but now likely much sooner).
On one hand, this is something of a surprise. There is no other figure remotely of her stature in German politics. Her dominance in European politics is unchallenged.
The German economy is growing and unemployment is low. Germany is still reaping the long-term benefits of entering monetary union with its economic reforms completed and a competitive cost structure, while the rest of Europe limps slowly through prolonged and painful adjustment.
But from another angle, the surprise is how long it took to get here.
The last three years have seen a steady erosion of support. In last year’s general election, the Christian Democrat vote share dropped by 9%. They limped back into office in a fragile grand coalition with the other main party, the left-of-centre Social Democrats. The pair of them mustered a bare 53% of the total vote.
The dominating feature of German politics now is the dispersion of support to new parties, like the populist Alternative for Germany, and formerly minor parties, like the Greens, Free Democrats and reformed communist party, which are collectively polling some 15% more than the once-dominant coalition partners.
If a single event can be responsible for her exit, it was probably Merkel’s abrupt decision in 2015 to open Germany’s borders and welcome one million mainly young male asylum seekers and economic migrants. Putting aside the humanitarian justification, this created a political conflict, which even Angela Merkel could not resolve. Germans (and indeed their new neighbours) will be a long time weaving a new social fabric.
There will be implications for European politics if German politics now enters a prolonged spell of introspection. Bold policy initiatives – which tend to require German leadership and cash – may be impossible.
European countries will still have to respond to events (the migrant crisis, for example, is on hold temporarily rather than resolved) but responses are more likely to be temporised and individual countries more likely to take their own paths. Take any confident proclamations of European global leadership with a pinch of salt.
For Germany, there is no outstanding replacement for Merkel in her own party, let alone in the others. This reflects not just her long personal dominance but also the absence of a clear alternative to her centre-straddling coalition politics.
The new force in German politics – Alternative for Germany – has the momentum but has yet to prove it can parlay its nationalist message into a viable coalition programme. The Greens are struggling with the implications of becoming a truly mainstream political party and perhaps the main force on the left.
Angela Merkel’s departure opens a new era in German politics – one less certain and more interesting.