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Europe does not need four more years of ‘Merkelism’

German politics updates

And the winner is . . . Angela Merkel. After 16 years, Germany’s chancellor is standing down. The nation’s voters are signalling they want to hang on to “Merkelism”. The world is in tumult and, post-Afghanistan, the Atlantic alliance in disarray. Germany does not want to be disturbed. After so long under the comfort blanket, the promise it wants from the next chancellor is that life can go on as before.

Predictions of the eventual outcome of the September 26 election must start with a health warning. Germany’s politics have fragmented, multiplying the possible combinations for a governing coalition. And the campaign has two more weeks to run. The fixed point is the national mood for continuity.

The opinion polls have already upturned received wisdom. The campaign began with a consensus in Berlin that the centre-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) was a certain loser. Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union seemed to have suffocated its junior partner in two grand coalitions. Centrists among SPD supporters were turning Green. Leftists were deserting to the formerly communist Linke. The challenge to the status quo came from Anna Baerbock, the telegenic leader of the Greens.

And now? If the polls are right the SPD has a sizeable lead. The CDU’s ratings are as low as they have ever been. Armin Laschet, Merkel’s chosen successor, has stumbled at every turn. It is too late to switch to Marcus Soder, the more accomplished leader of the CDU’s Bavarian sister party, the CSU. As for the energetic Baerbock, freshness has looked too much like inexperience. 

German voters have warmed instead to the SPD’s Olaf Scholz. Competent, solid and suitably dull, he has emerged as the chancellor candidate with the most convincing claim to be Merkel’s heir. Finance minister in the present coalition, he has been unabashed about pitching himself as the safety-first continuity candidate. 

Scholz displays as much charisma as, well, Merkel. His campaign boasts he will serve as “Madame” chancellor. He has unashamedly stolen the signature hand gesture Merkel deploys to project calming reassurance. He is wedded to the “debt brake” that caps Germany’s public spending. And he has said nothing that would commit Germany to help counter multiplying threats to the liberal international order on which its prosperity is founded.

Merkel’s personal ratings remain high. Even if one excludes the last three British prime ministers, Europe has not been overly burdened of late by great leaders. Think of the excitable Nicolas Sarkozy in France or the endless splintering of politics in Italy and the case for constancy has been evident enough. And in the chancellor’s defence, she paid a heavy political price for her one act of boldness: opening the nation’s borders to a million refugees in 2015. 

Yet her departure is long overdue. In recent years, her caution has curdled into cynicism. Merkel long complained about the absence of a credible partner in Paris to reinvigorate European collaboration. The elevation to the Elysée of Emmanuel Macron provided just such a partner. The chancellor quickly found other reasons to dismiss French initiatives. Europe has moved forward, witness the decision to put in place a €750bn Covid recovery fund. But Berlin signed up only when it had to.

China’s challenge to an open, rules-based global order has not been allowed to interrupt Germany’s exports. Nor have Russia’s attempts to destabilise western allies. Last year Merkel championed a new EU investment agreement with Beijing. This year she succeeded in keeping alive the Nordstream project to pipe Russian gas directly to Germany.

Of course, there have been occasional speeches admitting that Berlin must share the task of preserving Europe’s shared values in a world falling fast into another era of great power competition. But the pervasive message she has conveyed to the electorate has been the one it wanted to hear. Things have not much changed since the west’s triumph over communism. Germany need not be overly vexed by events in the world beyond.

Macron is not always the best advocate for his case when he talks about building Europe’s “strategic autonomy”. But he is right that, as the world splits into democratic and authoritarian camps, Europeans have a choice. They can translate the continent’s economic heft into a significant geopolitical voice, or they can look on helplessly as competition between the US and China sets the terms of a new world disorder. If it is the latter, the irony is that a slumbering Germany will be among the biggest losers.

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