A great deal of the European Union we know today, with its positive and negative sides, has been shaped by Chancellor Angela Merkel. Certainly, it has not all been sunshine and rainbows, for example during the German austerity crusade over the Greek economy in 2014. Yet, it was under German presidency that the EU was recently able to secure the €750 billion recovery fund, Next Generation EU, and to at least stress the importance of introducing rule of law provisions in the EU budgetary rules. As Europe struggles with the COVID-19 pandemic, and its social and economic repercussions, Merkel’s presence will be certainly missed.
Her ability to shape European policies more than any other prime minister in the EU is not only related to her 15-year mandate. She is supported by the economic power projected by Germany, the biggest economy in the EU, which has become even more central in the aftermath of Brexit. Yet, it is also a matter of her personal capacity to mediate with EU counterparts, while maintaining internal political stability.
Indeed, Angela Merkel represents the last bastion of a working bipartisan political system, which has been fading away in other EU countries such as Italy or France. Such stability though, might well collapse in the post-Merkel Germany. Indeed, it seems that much of the success of the Christian Democrats (CDU) and the Christian Social Union (CSU) is based more on Merkel’s popularity than on the parties’ actual attractiveness. This might explain why the CDU continues to slide in the polls, having lost nearly 6% points since August 2020, despite 58% of Germans being satisfied with Merkel’s leadership. If federal elections were held today, only 27% of Germans would vote for the CDU, with 22% opting for the Greens and 16% choosing the Social Democratic Party (SPD). Moreover, already in March 2021, CDU and CSU lost votes in regional elections in Baden-Württemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate. They are also expected to lose 3% of supporters in June in the Sassonia-Anhalt regional elections.
Certainly, the last years of Merkel’s government have not been easy. The COVID-19 crisis has had widespread negative repercussions in Germany, with a high number of deaths and consequences on the national economy. In 2020, Germany lost 5% of its GDP. While this is not as drastic as the UK (-10.3%), France (-8.3%) or Italy (-8.8%), Germany’s recovery is tied to the capacity of other EU countries to recover and buy German products. On the top of the unfavorable conditions, 64% of citizens are very dissatisfied with the German government, considering it incompetent and accusing it of mismanaging the coronavirus pandemic. Allegations against CDU and CSU members for having benefited from business deals involving personal protective equipment are a further obstacle to German internal political stability.
While vaccinations are moving forward with 32% of the population having received at least the first dose – against a 28% EU average -, Germany is expected to vaccinate the majority of its citizens by September, just in time for the elections. Yet, the success of CDU and CSU might also depend on Merkel’s successor. Armin Laschet (CDU), considered a pragmatic political figure, is now the official candidate for the chancellery, although Markus Söder of the Bavarian CSU, seemed to be supported by 43% of Germans, compared to the 12.1% who back Laschet. At the same time, the leader of the Greens, Annalena Baerbock is considered as Merkel’s best successor, with the Greens reaching 23% of the voting preferences. Those data should be somehow worrying for the CDU/CSU.
If CDU and CSU are unable to form the next government, possibly in a coalition with the Greens, they might be pushed to the side by a government led by a center-left coalition composed of the Green Party, the Social Democratic Party (SPD), the Left Party (Die Linke) and even the fiscally conservative Free Democratic Party (FDP). While this would be a devastating scenario for CDU and CSU, it will not harm the European Union. Indeed, no matter which coalition will emerge from September’s election, Germany will remain fully committed to the EU project. The FDP might be not inclined to support economic solidarity and might even attempt to stall Europe’s pandemic recovery, however, most major fiscal decisions would be approved by the upper house of parliament, in which CDU and CSU would still have a veto. This means the German political approach towards the EU could only be affected modestly.
Yet, Merkel’s departure will affect the EU in other ways. Indeed, she will leave a temporary power vacuum that no other leader, including French President Emmanuel Macron, could cover. Alone at center stage, Macron, who is already facing a difficult economic situation, will also face national elections. Without Berlin’s support, he might fail to deliver on ambitious EU fiscal rule reforms. Even the EU institutions might be affected by Merkel’s departure.
The President of the EU Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, a former minister in Merkel’s government, has been strongly criticized for the vaccination campaign. At the same time, the EU Council, which is becoming the main voice on the future of the EU, will have to manage without one of the EU’s most capable negotiating figures – Merkel has managed conflicts between the North and the South, the Frugals and the P.I.I.G.S., the East and the West.
The political void that Merkel will leave will likely last beyond the initial weeks and months of the new government. The change of German leadership , at a time when the EU needs to implement the recovery fund and discuss the need for a fiscal union, might however push member countries, to stop relying on Berlin’s unique capacity to lead the Union and take more responsibility in negotiating what is best for their countries and the EU overall.