German Chancellor on the Ropes: Preparing for Post-Merkel Era
Alex GORKA | 30.10.2018 | WORLD / Europe

German Chancellor on the Ropes: Preparing for Post-Merkel Era

Angela Merkel’s political position has been greatly weakened and her tenure as the German chancellor is nearing its end. This is a start of new epoch in the political life of Germany and Europe as a whole.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel is planning to resign as head of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) after 18 years at its helm. She will not run for reelection as the CDU’s leader in the vote that is scheduled for December. This decision came following a regional election in the state of Hesse on Oct. 28.

Her party is losing to challengers on the left and right. In early October, the Christian Social Union — the Bavarian ally of the CDU — suffered heavy losses in a regional election in Bavaria. The CDU performed rather poorly during last year’s general election, as the chancellor’s immigration policies are widely opposed. She suffered a serious setback in late September when Volker Kauder, the candidate she supported and who had for many years led the parliamentary group consisting of the chancellor’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its Bavarian allies, the Christian Social Union (CSU), lost its bid for reelection to challenger Ralph Brinkhaus, a political unknown. 

With no support in her own party, her chances for retaining the position of chancellor are slim at best. In theory, she could remain chancellor until 2021 even after resigning, but in practice this would be a very slim hope. After all, it was she who advocated for the idea that the position of the party’s leader and chancellor be held by one person wearing two hats. Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, the CDU General Secretary and the chancellor’s preferred successorbelieves that the Social Democrats (SPD) could quit the ruling coalition after its poor showing in the polls, thus triggering a general election. With the CDU polling at 26-27% nationally, Merkel’s era would come to an end.

Angela Merkel has served as chancellor since 2005. Her successor will take office at a time when the UK is dealing with some hiccups in its attempts to avoid a “hard Brexit” and French President Macron is facing problems with his approval ratings caused by his unpopular labor reforms and falling economic growth. The EU is going through a period of uncertainty, as the May 2019 European Parliament election draws near, threatening the positions of traditional political leaders.

Whoever leads the country after Ms. Merkel, his or her foreign-policy package will include cooperation with France to reform the EU, the gradual acquisition of a European defense deterrent, and support for the European Intervention Initiative (which might not be designed around EU entities, but would be closely connected to the PESCO — Permanent Structured Cooperation — initiative). And to give the devil his due — the idea of creating a “European seat” in the UN Security Council and a European security council made up of a rotating group of member states will remain a focus of European public discourse long after Angela Merkel steps down.

The German chancellor remains the driving force behind the EU’s Russia policy and is the main reason the sanctions have been neither lifted nor eased. It’s Berlin who leads and coordinates the Russian sanctions policy within the EU. Crimea and the situation in Ukraine are points of contention that divide Germany and Russia. Russia’s ties with Germany have grown increasingly strained over the past few years. The German government essentially views Russia as a threat and supports NATO’s policy that is aimed at strengthening the eastern members of the alliance in order to contain Russia.

On the other hand, Chancellor Merkel and Russian President Vladimir Putin both reject the US policy of diktat. The Nord Stream 2 gas project serves the interests of Russia and Germany and unites them in their efforts to stand up to that pressure. Both nations want to save the Iran nuclear deal. The fact that that dialog has never been suspended is evident from President Putin’s visit to Germany and his talks with Angela Merkel in the government residence in Mezeberg Castle. The meeting took place just three months after the Russian leader had received the German chancellor in Sochi. As the recent “summit of four” in Istanbul showed, despite differences of opinion on a number of issues, Russia could conceivably cooperate with EU members, including Germany and France, to stabilize the situation in Syria and launch the postwar reconstruction.

Germany has a special role to play. Acting as a loyal ally of the United States, it stays in constant contact with Russia, as an unofficial representative of the “collective West.”

A very substantial segment of the German business community is pressing for a relaxation of the sanctions and a restoration of normal economic ties — a factor no future chancellor will be able to ignore. According to a survey published in late 2017 by the German public broadcaster ARD, Germans trust Russia more than the US. They believe Moscow is a more reliable partner than Washington. No matter how strongly German media outlets criticize Russia, they are far more moderate than the American or British press. The influential parties outside of the governing coalition—the Free Democratic Party, the Left, and Alternative for Germany—favor changing the German policy on Russia, prioritizing a more value-centered approach.

A future chancellor may not like Russia but it will always be seen as an important neighbor that Germany has to deal with. Whoever is German chancellor, that bilateral relationship is almost certainly going to remain strained over the long haul, as the existing problems between the West and Russia cannot be solved by shooting from the hip. Forget about the idea of creating a common Greater European space from Lisbon to Vladivostok. The relationship can be progressively improved if Germany will stop seeing Russians as nothing but reluctant Europeans holding fast to their own standards and vision of the contemporary world. Russia is special and will accept nothing imposed by force But as Germany’s largest neighbor, possessing power with a global reach, it has to be dealt with accordingly. Any German leader will have to realize that European security is impossible without Russian participation.

Moscow and Berlin should be mindful of the global trends. Slowly the EU is moving in the direction of becoming a global player that paddles its own canoe. From the standpoint of GDP and population, the EU is comparable to the US. It’ll have to protect its interests independently, including its policy on Russia.

Two years ago, President German Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who at the time held the position of foreign minister, launched an initiative on a new comprehensive security agreement between the West and Russia. It was supported by 15 other European states, including France. He also slammed NATO for its “saber-rattling and war cries,” in addition to its provocative military activities right on Russia’s doorstep. Actually, this was nothing new. Russia’s 2009 proposal to discuss a new European Security Treaty was rejected by the West. In 2015, Russia expressed its readiness to hold talks on the control of conventional weapons in Europe. Despite all the mounting tensions and deepening differences, it never rejected the idea of opening up negotiations to address the problem.

Had Chancellor Merkel supported and promoted Steinmeier’s initiative, she would have gone down in history as the leader who nudged Europe back from the abyss. The chancellor missed this opportunity. Her successor must not. Angela Merkel is a great chancellor, but the Europe she dreamed of has failed to materialize, her policy on migrants turned out to be a failure, the sanctions against Russia have yielded no results, and the chancellor is no longer a politician who can bring votes to her party at election time. Nothing lasts forever. Hopefully, with a new chancellor in office, the prospects will improve for Germany, the EU, and all of Europe, including Russia. 

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