Across Europe, opinions have always been divided regarding Angela Merkel´s choices. The right has opposed her openness to refugees. The left has criticized her management of the Greek crisis. Many have questioned the indecision that is characterizing the Brexit process. And many more are asking themselves whether the proverbial prudence of the German government under Merkel’s leadership has indeed done everything it could to counter the growth of nationalism to the east and to the south of Europe, and even in Germany itself, with AfD’s surge in the regional and national parliaments.
But the EU itself is likely to feel abandoned after Mutti retires. No one can ignore the fact that Merkel, for the past 13 years, has defined European political life. Now, she will leave behind a gaping void, even though she isn’t leaving on short notice—because, despite the assurance that she will remain Chancellor until the end of the current legislature, her position has been objectively weakened (unless she chooses to focus on leaving an important mark on history and decides that her last fight would be for the re-foundation of the EU). Merkel has also said that she would not run for any European office. However, she tried to strike a reassuring tone, saying on Tuesday that she didn’t think she was losing any influence on the international scene.
Emmanuel Macron, in particular, will be left feeling alone: his plans for reforming and re-founding the EU and the Eurozone are in danger of collapsing altogether without strong allies to carry them forward. Like it or not, without the Franco-German axis, nothing gets done in Europe (after all, the Union itself was born out of the reconciliation of the two powers, previously at the heart of centuries-old conflicts).
Merkel’s European politics have been more centrist than the traditional position of her party, the CDU. The right wing of the CDU has very often criticized and distanced itself from her European choices, especially in recent times—not only regarding refugees, but also regarding her position on the euro and her project of a deepening of the Eurozone and developing greater fiscal solidarity between countries, which have been stirring much controversy (and even more so now, after the tensions caused by the Italian government).
For now, at least, much will depend on the name of Merkel’s successor as head of the CDU. If it is Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, nicknamed “mini-Merkel,” the situation may not change much, but AKK is being challenged by two hardliners from the party’s right wing: Jens Spahn, the Minister of Health, and, most importantly, the former leader of the CDU group in Parliament, Friedrich Merz, who is the most dangerous option. Merz—and Spahn as well—want nothing to do with a common budget for the Eurozone, which was Macron’s proposal (and which means establishing real solidarity between the countries using the single currency).
On this and other matters, Macron seems to be isolated, and he has already distanced himself from Merkel on certain issues, with a restrictive refugee policy (refusing to welcome the rescue vessel Aquarius this summer), and lately by referring to Merkel’s decision to stop the sale of German arms to Saudi Arabia after the Khashoggi murder as “demagoguery.” (In this latter case, of course, the difference between Germany and France regarding the scale of arms sales to Riyadh is of crucial importance.)
“This decision [by Merkel to retire] is a shock for Europe,” said Marcel Fratzscher, President of the Institute for Economic Research in Berlin. “Germany might no longer be a stabilizing element. On the contrary: the Federal Republic is a risk today.”