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Opinion

Angela Merkel's leadership

Mujtaba Rahman / Nov 2015

Angela Merkel. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

 
A lot is being made about the demise of Angela Merkel. And the risks this would pose for Europe. But the argument that Merkel’s refugee policy is the beginning of her end is premature. Moreover the belief a weakened Merkel will be bad for Europe is too simplistic. For much of the last few years, global punditry has made the opposite case -- that a strong Germany represents Europe’s biggest threat. Both cannot be true.
 
There is no doubt the refugee crisis represents Merkel’s most serious political challenge. Dealing with refugees already in Europe through relocation quotas has divided East and West and provided cannon fodder for right wing nationalists in Germany, France, Austria, Poland and Slovakia, to name a handful of countries.
 
Addressing the crisis’s root causes -- instability in Syria and Turkey’s unwillingness to integrate Syrian refugees -- will not prove any easier. Russia’s intervention in Syria has divided Germany, France and the UK. This has prompted an incoherent EU response that will undermine the EU’s ability to help broker an agreement over political transition in Syria alongside other regional powers.
 
Despite Germany’s overtures towards Turkey, its President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has little or no incentive to integrate Syrian refugees given the outcome of Turkey’s legislative elections on 1 November and the fact xenophobia and economic nationalism are both on the rise. No serious moves to integrate Syrian refugees will be made in this period.
 
Notwithstanding these challenges, it is still too early to count Merkel out.
 
First, there are numerous examples where Merkel has staked out unpopular policy positions, blending pragmatism with high principle, despite reluctance from her CDU party and the public. In each instance Merkel was proven right, and ultimately strengthened. Refugees could be another example.
 
Merkel’s response to the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan, that reversed her flagship “Energiewende”clean energy policy, is one example. Her tough stance on Russia, given its de facto invasion of Eastern Ukraine, was another. It was not until the downing of Malaysian airlines MH17 by Russian separatists that her party, and her public, caught up with her.
 
There is also no one in Germany to replace her. And there is no Michael Heseltine who is ready to stick the knife in. The rumor mill in Berlin is wild with speculation that Finance Minister Wolfgang Schauble could be a successor. But at 73, he is coming to the end of a very successful political career. His reputation and standing is that of a statesman, having protected Germany’s purse through the Eurozone’s multiple crisis. Would he really want to hurt that legacy by toppling the Iron Chancellor? It is highly unlikely.
 
Other would be successors are also not credible. Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen, often touted as a successor, is currently embroiled in a PhD scandal. These have proven the death knell for many a politician in Germany. A look through the younger political ranks also leads one to the same conclusion.  There is no one in the CDU or the opposition Social Democrats that has proven capable of capturing the German public’s imagination.
 
There has also been a stable popularity gap between Merkel and her CDU: Her popularity has never translated into an increase in the popularity of her party.  The CDU is, and therefore will, remain beholden to her. This will result in a degree of risk aversion and caution. If she is indeed deposed, the CDU’s ability to win in 2017 will be seriously undermined. And while it is true Merkel’s popularity has suffered, it remains comfortably over 50%. Other EU leaders’ would kill for these numbers.
 
A distracted Germany may also not be bad for Europe. Over the last several years, Germany’s leadership has meant overly tight fiscal policy, reactionary and behind the curve monetary policy, political upheaval, fragmentation and populism in Europe’s south -- especially Greece but now also in Portugal -- and a total lack of willingness to support the institutions the Euro needs to perform as a global currency. It is too early to count on the demise of Merkel. But even if it were to happen, it may not necessarily be bad for Europe

Mujtaba Rahman

Mujtaba Rahman

November 2015

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