But now Merkel’s lack of vision has been called into question after her center-right party the Christian Democrats (CDU) and its Bavarian sister the Christian Social Union (CSU) experienced a catastrophic loss in the general election on September 24 and the fragmentary makeup of the Bundestag plunged Germany into a coalition crisis.
“Your political style, Ms. Merkel, is the reason we have a rightist, populist party here in the Bundestag,” Carsten Schneider of the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD) said at the inaugural session of the new Parliament in October. “During the election, you avoided every political dispute about better ideas and concepts,” he added.
The leader of the SPD, Martin Schulz also faulted Merkel with leading a “scandalous election campaign” that disengaged from political debate. Criticism of her risk-adverse leadership style of taking the middle-road, pinching policies from the opposition, and campaigning on bland slogans – once regarded as her winning formula – is mounting. Schneider and Schulz both accused Merkel’s caution of allowing the populist, Eurosceptic Alternative for Germany (AfD) to flourish. Gaining 94 seats in the election, it is the first far-right party to enter Parliament since the 1950s. The public has also voiced concerns about Merkel’s authority. Nearly half of Germans feel unclear about her political convictions, while 67 percent of Germans think Merkel is no longer the leader she once was according to a recent poll.
In order to recover confidence in her and, for that matter, her job as Chancellor, Merkel is determined to resolve the coalition crisis. But even for an acclaimed backroom negotiator, this is proving difficult. More than three months since election day, Germany has yet to form a new government. Polarized views on the contentious issues of asylum, immigration and energy policy broke down the first phase of exploratory talks in November between the CSU and CDU, the SPD and the Greens, nicknamed the “Jamaica coalition” because the parties’ colours make up those of the Jamaican flag.
The second phase of talks recommenced on January 7 after the Christmas break. Although the SPD announced it would go into opposition shortly after the election, it has since retracted this decision in response to pressure from President Frank-Walter Steinmeier to end the stalemate. The party agreed to enter into five days of talks with the CDU and CSU to determine whether they can begin formal negotiations and resurrect the “grand coalition,” which is Merkel’s preferred outcome.
However, the coalition would bring many challenges with it. Some fear it could bolster the xenophobic, Eurosceptic AfD by making it the largest opposition party, which entails more political clout, resources and media coverage. In addition, the SPD are wary of re-entering this political marriage. In their eyes, four years in a coalition with the CDU and CSU cost them forty seats in Parliament and resulted in their worst election result since 1933.
But all of this remains hypothetical because there is no certainty that the two sides will reach a compromise by January 11. Several points of contention could arise at the negotiating table and derail coalition-building, which might force Germany to call fresh elections. The issue set to produce the most amount of friction is asylum policy. The conservatives criticized Merkel’s open-door response to the refugee crisis, which welcomed 1.2 million refugees into Germany in 2015-16, for contributing to their electoral losses. In the negotiations, the more conservative CSU is likely to push for a limit on the number of asylum seekers accepted, whereas the SPD will advocate for refugees bringing family members.
To reassert their traditional values after a humiliating loss in the election, the SPD will also bring their social agenda to the table. They are keen on implementing a compulsory citizen insurance (Bürgerversicherung) in place of the dual health care system. The CDU and CSU both reject this idea. They want pensions for older mothers, who they fear are penalized by the pension system, but left-leaning parties view this as misguided reform.
On the question of Europe, all four parties support the European Union (EU), but take varying stances on how far integration in the union should go. The SPD leader made his position very clear in December at his party’s conference when he revived the idea of creating a “United States of Europe” by 2025. Under the CDU, Merkel has expressed support for creating a European Monetary Fund and aligning corporate tax regimes, but has no desire to form a federal Europe by the next decade. However, the CSU takes the most critical line on forging greater links in Europe.
Consequently, the potential for clash is high and disagreements over social welfare, asylum policy and European integration would create stumbling blocks if no side makes concessions. But it is unlikely that the parties are heading for a catastrophic collision course because they are under increasing pressure to form a government, and form one quickly. Merkel particularly so.
In her televised New Year’s address, she promised Germans that she would form a government “without delay.” She knows that failed negotiations with the SPD would undermine her leadership further and resurface calls for her to resign. Newspapers across Germany have already raised concerns about Merkel’s competence and recent polls reveal a dip in her popularity, which could damage her reputation permanently. 46 percent of Germans, for example, said they want her to step down from office immediately. But others find themselves without a good alternative, captured well by the German word alternativlos. Merkel might manage to make it through another four years as Chancellor, but a fifth term seems almost out of the question.
For now, though, it is unlikely Merkel will end a 12-year chancellorship – that most European leaders would envy – so unceremoniously. Her job might be on the line, but she isn’t any other politician. Tenacious and tactful, the veteran chancellor will likely bounce back. Moreover, she has no obvious successor and few German politicians would dare claim they could fill Mutti’s shoes. “Mutti” (mummy), the nickname Germans gave to Merkel, knows best – some would say. Her steady hand steered Germany through a global financial recession, made her the de facto leader of the EU and won her three terms as Chancellor along with many fans at home and abroad. One diplomat said she was still the reigning “queen of Europe,” and complimented her negotiating skills at EU summits: “If you want to get something done, you go to her.”
The political crisis should not be overstated. Germany will assemble a new government in the next few months. What is more concerning is that the crisis has side-lined Germany’s foreign policy. This is beginning to frustrate EU leaders, who sit twiddling their thumbs waiting for their “queen” to turn her attention back to European affairs. This pause on key decision-making comes at a particularity bad time, with the union still recovering from its existential crisis triggered by the populist wave and peaking with Brexit. The ongoing plight of refugees, Catalonia’s demands for cessation, and cyber security threats, should command Germany’s attention, but while it remains distracted, finding solutions to these pressing problems will be on hold.
One other serious concern lies ahead for Europe. Although Merkel’s era might not be over as quickly as some forecast, the end is on the horizon and Europe needs to anticipate and prepare for a world without Merkel. With the added decline of American leadership, the question that begs an answer is: who will lead the world stage?
This question has not been answered and Emmanuel Macron’s visionary speech on deeper integration in the EU at the Sorbonne last September remains just that – a vision. The same goes for President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker’s ambitious proposal for a more integrated Europe. With a caretaker government in place in Germany and the post-Merkel era on the horizon, Europe’s most pressing issues hang in the balance. And Macron’s inspiring vision of a stronger, safer, and more connected Europe looks doomed to become the delusional fantasy of a man who needs to get his eyes checked.