The Permanent Becomes Ephemeral: Merkel Steps Back

AP Photo/Francisco Seco

German Chancellor Angela Merkel arrives for an EU summit in Brussels. 

This week Angela Merkel announced that she will step down as chair of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) in December and seek no further elective office. Commentators who had previously been trumpeting the two recent electoral debacles that led to this announcement, first in Bavaria and then, last Sunday, in Hesse, abruptly changed their tone to praise the dignified ending Merkel had devised for her own story. It was as if everyone sought to paraphrase Shakespeare, to the effect that nothing in her tenure became her like the leaving of it.

Such a dismissive judgment hardly does justice to the woman who has dominated her party for the past 18 years and who reigned as chancellor for 13 and still counting (although she pledged only not to run again in 2021, when her term is up, many people think she cannot survive that long once she relinquishes the party chair). The number of politicians who underestimated the deliberate and soft-spoken chancellor is legion. Outmaneuvering countless adversaries, she moved her party decisively to the center, where she governed in successive coalitions with junior partners to both her left and her right.

Under her leadership, Germany recovered from the post-reunification malaise that had made it the “sick man of Europe” and became once again the dominant power in the European Union. But her single-minded dedication to honing Germany’s competitive edge in order to maintain the export-led growth that made this recovery possible narrowed her vision and made her less effective as a European leader and reformer than she might have been. 

Or rather, more accurately, it made her more perversely effective than she should have been in enforcing German dogma on economies to which it was not at all suited, imposing a decade of austerity and hindering recovery from the Great Recession in much of the continent. Habitually cautious, her one impulsive act—the decision to open the gates to refugees from the Syrian carnage—fueled the rise of a formidable adversary in the xenophobic Alternative für Deutschland (AfD).

Ultimately, however, it was not the AfD that did her in but the passing of the postwar Baby Boom generation to which she belonged, coupled with fears that Germany’s current prosperity cannot last. The fears are not irrational. The high-flying German auto industry lags in the crucial areas of battery technology and self-driving vehicles. The recent scandal around tampering with emissions tests on diesel vehicles undermined confidence in Germany’s vaunted engineering prowess, and talk of a partial or total ban on the use of diesel automobiles worries citizens who paid good money for their precious but polluting rides. Meanwhile, German infrastructure is crumbling. Roads, bridges, and railways stand in urgent need of repair. And despite the introduction of Germany’s first-ever minimum wage law under Merkel, inequality has increased.

But generational change was an even more potent factor in sealing Merkel’s fate than economic and technological change. She is hardly the only European leader to have succumbed to the advent of a new era. At 64, she is the last of her cohort to lead one of continental Europe’s Big Three economies. In France, François Hollande (who was born, as Merkel was, in 1954), Nicolas Sarkozy (born in 1955), and Alain Juppé (born in 1945) have all been sidelined, eclipsed by Emmanuel Macron, who was still in diapers when they first entered the political arena in the 1970s. In Italy, the even older Silvio Berlusconi (born in 1936) has been put out to pasture by Matteo Salvini (age 45) and Luigi di Maio (just 32).

It is commonplace these days to present these dramatic changes as the consequence of a populist wave sweeping the democratic world in response to havoc wreaked by irresistible economic, demographic, and political change: globalization, immigration, and forfeiture of sovereignty to unelected and unaccountable technocrats. Clearly, these powerful forces cannot be discounted, but their effects are compounded by widespread impatience with the dearth of imaginative responses from the older leadership generation. And what has collapsed in France and Italy as well as Germany in the past two years is confidence not just in the existing leadership but also in the party systems that sustained them and defined the parameters of their competition throughout the postwar era.

In Germany, the most successful of these three economies (the three largest on the European continent), the collapse of the old party system is less complete than in France or Italy. Macron’s En Marche! movement decimated both the Socialist and Republican parties and left standing essentially a one-party state facing a scattered, disorganized, and disparate opposition ranging from Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s France Insoumise on the far left to Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National on the far right. In Italy, the once robust competition between Berlusconi’s Forza Italia and Matteo Renzi’s Partito Democratico was obliterated by an improbable coalition of northern and southern populists who in many respects cordially detest one another but have suspended their mutual animosity for the sake of power.

The German party system, though battered in recent elections, has not yet crumbled. The two major parties, the CDU/CSU on the right and SPD on the left, did hemorrhage votes, however. The CSU shed a full 12 percentage points in its Bavarian stronghold compared with 2013, while its CDU sister party’s vote total fell by a similar amount in Hesse. Both will nevertheless still be able to form governments. The populist, xenophobic AfD made gains but its support was much less impressive than expected (13 percent in Hesse; 10 percent in Bavaria).

The big story, however, was the rise of the Greens (20 percent in Hesse, 18 percent in Bavaria), which took votes from both the right and the left, just as Macron did in France. These were voters disaffected from both of the mainstream parties but unable to stomach the AfD’s anti-immigrant and anti-EU rhetoric. Many were younger voters, tired of the old leadership and tired, too, of the traditional issues and terms of debate. 

Like Macron’s marcheurs, the new Greens are socially liberal but not anti-capitalist. Rather than limit economic growth, they want clean growth and argue that the introduction of green technologies will lead to the creation of new jobs. Hence they have no sympathy for striking “brown coal” (lignite) miners, who rightly fear that efforts to control emissions threaten their livelihoods. It is easy for the Greens to turn their backs on the miners but less easy for a party like the SPD, with its historical working-class roots. Much of its base consists of retired industrial workers, who don’t mix easily with the college graduates and urban white-collar employees now turning to the Greens.

On the right, Merkel’s announcement that she will resign as party chair immediately triggered a contest to replace her. Her protégée Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, known as AKK, faces stiff competition from the young but very conservative health minister, Jens Spahn (age 38), and from an older and even more conservative rival, Friedrich Merz, who withdrew from politics after Merkel ousted him as party chief in the Bundestag in 2002. Merz then became a force to reckon with in the private sector, where he chairs the board of the German wing of the investment management firm BlackRock.

AKK represents continuity, a change of face without much of a change of course after Merkel, so if the party is looking to return to the glory days of old, it could well turn to one of the more conservative candidates. But if the generational shift hinted at by the strong showing of the Greens in Bavaria and Hesse turns out to be the real message of the recent elections, then the hemorrhage may continue. Merz, clearly hoping to win back CDU voters who have turned to the AfD, is openly touting “traditional values and national identity” as the remedy to globalization and immigration. This could well drive younger people toward the Greens.

Meanwhile, the SPD, which has been in steady decline, is eyeing a monumental rebuilding task. In the wake of the last national elections, the party’s youth wing, led by Kevin Kühnert, advocated rejecting a new Grand Coalition, the better to begin the arduous task of rebuilding. Instead, the party witnessed an internal coup, with Andrea Nahles and Olaf Scholz joining forces to oust the losing candidate for the chancellorship, Martin Schulz, and former vice-chancellor Sigmar Gabriel, in order to become, respectively, party chair and finance minister in a new Grand Coalition (“GroKo”) with Merkel’s CDU/CSU. But with the severe defeats in Hesse and Bavaria, a consensus is growing that continued participation in the GroKo will lead to further erosion of support. Next year’s European elections could well become the flash point for the pressures building within the SPD. An explosion is not out of the question.

What does all this mean for Europe? Germany, consumed by its internal political drama, cannot assume the leadership role that its ineluctable economic importance demands. Italy, determined to confront the European Union on immigration and budgetary issues, has incurred the first-ever rejection of its proposed budget by the European Commission. Emmanuel Macron is thus left alone to ponder how he might give concrete substance to his lofty rhetoric on the necessity of European reform. 

Inveterate optimists might take hope from the seemingly insuperable impasse. Voters across Europe have made it clear that they resent taking orders from Brussels. This may persuade would-be reformers like Macron that strengthening the EU’s central institutions is for now not a viable option. Instead, the EU could take a more flexible approach, devolving greater autonomy on national governments, as former IMF official Ashoka Mody recommends in his superb recent book, Eurotragedy. Sometimes, the shortest route to a destination is to circumnavigate the mountain rather than try to scale it.

Meanwhile, Goethe (of course!) has fittingly provided the last word on Merkel’s tenure: “Sind wir ja eben deßhalb da, um das Vergängliche unvergänglich zu machen; das kann ja nur dadurch geschehen, wenn man beides zu schätzen weiß.“ (Surely the reason we are here is to make the ephemeral permanent, but that can happen only if we value both.)

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