Angela Merkel often recalls how, as a schoolgirl in East Germany, she was once ordered to jump off a three-metre-high diving board during a sport lesson. Reaching the board, she froze, unable to make the leap. To the sound of laughter from her classmates, she paced the diving board, deliberating. Only at the very end of the lesson, as the bell rang, did she finally dive headfirst into the water. The chancellor plainly likes to tell the story. Its subtext: she is cautious but takes the right decision in the end.
That method has marked her chancellorship, which reaches its 14th birthday tomorrow. Merkel has often, though not always, made good decisions; backing continued Greek membership of the euro, for example, or keeping the country’s borders open during the refugee crisis of 2015. But typically she has done so at the last possible moment and with virtually no political pitch-rolling. In many cases, important but awkward choices and priorities have been gripped far too late or not at all (in 2013 she was mocked for describing the internet, then 30 years old, as “uncharted territory”). This method even sparked the slang term “merkeln”, or “to merkel”, meaning to deliberate extensively to delay a choice. Think of it as the opposite of YOLO.
The advantages and disadvantages of all this merkeling mark Germany today. And as Merkel’s centre-right Christian Democrat Union (CDU) gathers in Leipzig tomorrow (Friday) for its annual conference, they also mark the race to succeed her as the party’s chancellor candidate. Merkel has ruled out running for a fifth term at the next German federal election, which is scheduled for 2021 but could come earlier if the divided and despairing Social Democrats (SPD) pull out of her grand coalition. That begs the question: who next?
For years, Merkel did little to build up a successor, merkeling along as several potential figureheads from her moderate wing of the CDU self-combusted or stumbled. Ursula von der Leyen, once regarded as the “crown princess”, was under-supported in the thankless task of defence secretary (the job is known in Berlin as the “ejector seat”) and has now left federal politics to become president of the European Commission. Other Merkel loyalists like the affable business minister Peter Altmaier owe their positions to her and lack an independent base in the party. Only late last year did the chancellor move, standing down as general secretary of the CDU, a post-independent from the chancellorship and thus leaving the way clear for Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, the moderate minister-president of the federal state of Saarland.
“AKK”, however, has not turned out well. A succession of gaffes, albeit ones exaggerated by her rivals on the right of the party, have tarnished what initially seemed like a Merkelish stolidness. Her appointment as defence minister in July raised eyebrows (into the ejector seat so soon?) and has seen her make a succession of bold but woolly proposals such as an improbable German-backed safe zone in northern Syria. Her approval rating has tumbled. A ZDF/Tagesspiegel poll of CDU supporters published earlier this month revealed that just 8 per cent thought she would be the best chancellor candidate. So the CDU goes into its conference with the succession uncertain – at the very point when the urgency of that choice is bearing down on the party.
To be sure, AKK is still in the running. But she will need to deliver a stellar speech in Leipzig to remain there. Expect her to make a virtue of her ambitious foreign policy arguments, styling herself as the voice of hard geopolitical truths in a country where these are too rarely aired.
Several alternative chancellor candidates will also be vaunting their credentials. Armin Laschet, the minister-president of North-Rhine Westphalia, Germany’s most populous state, is unremarkable but inoffensive. If AKK blows it, he might be the moderates’ best hope of securing the chancellor candidacy. The darling of the right is Friedrich Merz, a free-marketeer whose rivalry with Merkel goes back to the early 2000s and who is the most popular of the contenders in polls of party supporters. Two younger, more nuanced figures round out the field: Jens Spahn, the thrusting health secretary, and Markus Söder, the minister-president of Bavaria and leader of the Christian Social Union, the CDU’s more conservative Bavarian sister party. Spahn and Söder are both ascribed to the right of the CDU/CSU alliance but both are more complex figures than this allows. Both have been making efforts to soften their image and burnish their credibility.
The choice between these candidates — and perhaps others, not yet in contention — will be critical for Germany. Its next election is not far off. If the SPD pulls out of the coalition, an outcome that depends on the result of its own leadership race on 8 December, it could even come early next year. Merkeling along has not served the country poorly (not for nothing is the chancellor still its most popular politician). It has played an important, calming role in bedding in the dramatic transformations of the post-reunification years. But the practice of deferring many difficult decisions, taking others at the last-minute and wrapping the whole package in a soothingly apolitical vagueness has left behind a trail of unresolved tensions and challenges.
Germany’s success model under Merkel can be summed up as: making high-quality goods and selling them to boom markets around the world; enjoying the protection of the American security umbrella and the insulation of a circle of friendly European neighbours; and feeling comfortable in its own skin as a reunified and modern country.
Every aspect of that settlement is now under strain. The country’s manufacturing industries are being ravaged by trade wars, environmental rules, under-anticipated technological disruptions and the rise up the value chain of economies like China. America’s security guarantee is in question and Europe’s neighbourhood looks more threatening. Migration, the ageing society and cultural polarisation are begging difficult questions of Germany’s identity; a process reflected in political churns like the recent rise of the Greens and the far-right Alternative für Deutschland and the fall in support for the SPD. Everything is in flux. And at the top, a leader who is emphatically winding down. Last year Merkel gave 22 interviews to the German media, down from an annual average of 60. On many of the big, sticky issues she has little of substance to say. She has long ceded European pre-eminence to Emmanuel Macron.
Her successor, who judging by the field may well be relatively untested, will thus have a huge vacuum to fill. And with that responsibility will come huge power to change, or not change, Germany’s course — and with it, Europe’s. The CDU’s chancellor candidate will probably lead the next government. Her or his identity and outlook will strongly influence whether the party does a centrist deal with the Greens (arithmetically, for now at least, the best hope of a stable and moderate government) or strikes out with a right-of-centre, possibly minority government.
On a related but distinct measure, it will also dictate whether the style of leadership at Germany’s helm remains cautious and softly-softly, or energetic and divisive. It is even just about conceivable, albeit extremely unlikely, that a disastrous CDU candidate could haemorrhage support to the extent that a left-led federal government becomes possible.
Diminished she may be, but Merkel is a colossal political figure: Europe’s most recognisable leader, a unique bearer of accumulated wisdom and experience and a woman whose action and inaction has forged today’s Germany. What comes next is as important as it is uncertain.