When Chancellor Angela Merkel announced that she planned to stand for a fourth term, the liberals and pro-Europeans inside and outside Germany gave a sigh of relief: at last, some stability in an increasingly unstable world. No one can predict what the US will look like once Donald Trump is president, what Britain’s relationship with the EU will be, and whether the far right will take over in France.
Merkel stands for reliability and consistency. Germans call her Mutti, the mother of the nation; she has even been labelled in the international media as the new leader of the free world”. Isn’t she the only mighty politician left to defend the EU and its liberal values? Isn’t she the one who, with 11 years’ experience on the international stage, can bring Europe together and tame Trump as well as Russia’s Putin?
It is tempting to have high expectations of Merkel, but it’s also dangerous. And it doesn’t help Germany and Europe in the long term.
Sure, Merkel is a wholehearted pro-European, but where is her vision of a more democratic and social Europe? It doesn’t exist. Her course of austerity for struggling countries such as Greece always aimed to serve German interests and those of German banks. In enforcing severe budget cuts, she crushed rather than helped the Greek economy, and across the continent it destroyed faith in the idea of European benevolence.
Having destroyed the idea of solidarity during the debt crisis, she was unable to form a coalition that could handle the increasing numbers of refugees in Europe. This is why central European countries such as Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia were unwilling to follow Merkel and agree a compromise on distribution quotas.
In order to control the crisis, she had to put all her eggs in the basket of President Erdoğan. So the Turkish government is not only paid billions of Euros to take back “illegal” Syrian migrants from Greece, but in effect Erdoğan has been given the power to oppress domestic opposition without having to fear criticism from the EU and Germany.
The volatility of this deal is dangerous for Europe and for Merkel. If the number of incoming refugees rises again, her popularity will fall rapidly, as it did in autumn 2015.
Rather than rely on the Turkish president, who behaves more and more like an autocrat, Europe should seek a common foreign and immigration policy. Yet Merkel may not be the right one to lead such negotiations.
In her 11 years in office she has taken few risks in dealing with national challenges. She made the term “without alternative” popular, meaning to wait and take a decision at the last moment, forcing political partners into acceptance. It may have been a slick way to govern, but it drove her partners mad. Whatever topic became popular – nurseries, climate change, parental leave – Merkel occupied it and made it her policy.
Thus she moved the Christian Democrats towards the centre, demolishing the Social Democrats who were in a coalition in her first term and have been again since 2013. But in so doing she created space for the far-right party Alternative for Germany (AfD), which claimed to be the alternative that Merkel didn’t offer.
It seems more and more that, if Merkel wants to serve Germany, she should give way before her star sinks, which would risk taking her party with her.
Germany’s political landscape looks unpredictable. The Christian Democrats cling to Merkel and are exhausted by long disagreements with their sister party in Bavaria about refugee policy. The Social Democrats are stuck at 20-something per cent in the polls and feel so intimidated by Merkel that last year they questioned the need to have their own leader. The AfD, with its charismatic leader Frauke Petry, is currently the third biggest party, leaving the Greens and Left party behind.
What would a Germany without Merkel look like? Would the AfD take over and launch a referendum for Deutschland to leave the EU (a Dexit)? That’s unlikely at the moment, but not completely out of the question. Will Social Democrats, Greens and the Left party form a coalition? It would have been unbelievable six months ago, but not now.
The Christian Democratic party (CDU) “must therefore learn to run, must be able to take up the struggle with the political opponent in the future without its old warhorse […]. She has to break away from home, like someone experiencing puberty, and go her own way.” These are Merkel’s words, published in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung in December 1999. They were aimed at Helmut Kohl, the former chancellor who still dominated the party. After 16 years in office he had lost the general election in 1998, and in 2000 his grip on the CDU was broken by his former protegee, Merkel.
Her message of almost two decades ago applies to her party today, as well as to all liberal and pro-European Germans. They have to be willing to take over responsibility for Germany, as well as for a Europe that doesn’t just care about single market and free movement but about the needs of its citizens. They have to emancipate themselves from Mutti. There is always an alternative.
Anna Lehmann is an editor on the Berlin-based daily newspaper Die Tageszeitung, and currently works in the Guardian's offices on the George Weidenfeld Bursary, an international journalists' exchange scheme.