One of the lessons of recent years is that premature obituaries of Angela Merkel’s chancellorship tend to age poorly. Time and again her departure has been prophesied; time and again she has tacked through the moments of difficulty, defied the doomsayers and survived.
So it pays to be instinctively sceptical of any claims that something is different now; that dramas in Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) are any less survivable than previous ones. The chancellor remains the most popular politician in Germany. A recent crisis over mainstream co-operation with the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) in the state of Thuringia and the downfall of Merkel’s erstwhile protégée Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer (see my column in this week’s New Statesman) leave no single obvious successor. If Merkel really wants to she can, as she has pledged to do, plough on through the rest of her current term and step down only after the federal election due in autumn 2021.
And yet. Something does feel different about the latest dramas. Berlin politicos who rolled their eyes at excitable talk of a “Merkeldämmerung” in the past are starting to wonder out loud whether the chancellor really will step down sooner than expected – perhaps even in the next few months.
The demise of “AKK”, who proved unable to project her authority over a party mired in debates about its future, has made the prospect of another 18 months of Merkel look rockier. Kramp-Karrenbauer has pledged to remain as caretaker leader until the CDU has selected a chancellor candidate for next year’s federal election. That way the two roles can be reconciled in one authoritative figure (she tacitly chided Merkel for not pursuing this option from the start). Under existing plans that will take until the end of this year. But the prospect of such a long period of drift is prompting suggestions that one or both votes will be brought forward.
But then what? The new party leader may well be one with a historically antagonistic relationship with Merkel: the free-marketeer Friedrich Merz (who yesterday announced his intention to stand), say, or the health minister Jens Spahn. Even Armin Laschet, the state premier of North Rhine-Westphalia and a Merkel-ish contender, would probably strike a more independent pose than AKK. Any rift between the party leadership and the chancellory would then probably grow, if and when the successful leadership candidate was then selected as the CDU’s chancellor candidate. In any case, an incumbent Merkel would loom over the party’s election campaign in 2021; her prospective successor either shackled to her legacy or at odds with it, or at best walking a fine tightrope between the two.
There is a case, then, for Merkel to step down sooner and give the party’s new leader and chancellor candidate a spell in which to establish themselves and lead the party into the election with some much-needed coherence and authority. She may well recognise the advantages of this course. (The newspaper Handelsblatt reports that Merkel has privately acknowledged that splitting the roles of chancellor and party leader has become an issue for the CDU.)
But if so, she is doubtless weighing them against its disadvantages. Leaving early could possibly bring down her governing coalition with the Social Democratic Party, triggering an early election at which the CDU could lose seats and even power. Even without that, a “Merxit” in 2020 would disrupt Germany’s presidency of the EU. Running from July to December, this will see Berlin lead an EU-China summit, an EU-Africa summit, and negotiations over the EU’s next long-term budget, as well as managing any crunch point in future-relationship talks with Britain. A successful presidency, Merkel allies believe, would burnish the chancellor’s legacy as a stateswoman who helped hold Europe together and stood up for global multilateralism in turbulent times.
It is – to reiterate – rarely wise to predict an impending end to Merkel’s chancellorship. And any such decision rests, and will almost certainly remain, with Merkel herself. But scenarios in which the chancellor might decide of her own accord to give up her office early do now present themselves.
They might include: the election as CDU leader and chancellor candidate of a Merkel-sceptic with whom she could not rub along; signs that the authority split in her party might lose it the election or make Germany’s EU presidency a flop; a CDU meltdown over China policy (say, an escalation of the current row over letting the Chinese firm Huawei build parts of Germany’s 5G network) dooming the EU-China summit; or the emergence of a window, after a successful EU presidency, where she could leave on a high without overshadowing the election. Such scenarios are now, at least, thinkable where they were barely so before.