With Brexit looming and populists rising, Merkel’s exit threatens EU unity

The chancellor’s decision makes clear that neither she nor her country are immune to the forces that have reordered politics across the continent


Chancellor Angela Merkel has been a seemingly invincible figure in German politics. In office for 13 years, she has been Europe’s most powerful leader, a presence so synonymous with stability that Germans call her Mutti, or Mother. So it was a familiar sight on Monday to see her live on television, until she asked Germans to do something far less familiar, and “get ready for the time after me”.

But Merkel’s decision to quit as German chancellor in 2021 spells uncertainty and possibly paralysis for the European Union (EU) as populists rally, diplomats and analysts warned. After her announcement on Monday, the EU is even less likely to bridge divisions on key topics such as migration or Eurozone reform in the coming months, they say.

“Nobody is going to listen to her anymore in Europe. She has taken herself immediately out of the game,” said Sebastian Maillard, director of the Jacques Delors Institute think tank. Maillard was referring not only to Merkel’s decision to quit as chair of her party before stepping down later as chancellor, but also to not run for an EU position afterward. “It’s a tough blow for Europe,” Maillard told AFP.

Few observers believe she could hang on until the end of her term, speculating that new elections could be held as early as next year.

The chancellor’s decision makes clear that neither she nor her country are immune to the forces that have reordered politics across the continent: The cratering of the political centre; the rise of populist forces; the blowback from the migration crisis; and a redrawing of the political fault lines away from the historical left-right divide towards a battle between liberal pro-European values and their nationalist polar opposite.

Speculation had grown for months about Merkel’s exit from the political stage, so the announcement was no surprise, but it still came as a shock. It underscored the new fragility of German politics and the great uncertainty for a Europe without Merkel at the helm. “Germany has been a cradle of political stability over the last decade, but this now looks to be over,” said Stefan Koopman, an economist at Rabobank.

Merkel’s announcement came hours after her party recorded the worst election results since 1966 in the western state of Hesse, and two weeks after her conservative allies in Bavaria received a similar blow. Merkel’s retreat, analysts say, could mark the beginning of a new era not just for Europe’s biggest country, but for the continent itself.

It could leave Germany more unstable and less able to take the lead in Europe at a time when leadership is badly needed on an array of topics — from Britain’s imminent departure from the EU to Italy’s controversial budget plans. Such uncertainty comes at a bad time. “Europe is experiencing a serious internal crisis,” an official from a EU member-country noted. “There is a lack of leadership in Europe. Most of the leaders are in trouble,” the official said.

— New York Times News Service

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