Sep 4, 2021 - World

The end of the Angela Merkel era poses big questions for Europe

Photo illustration of Angela Merkel against the colors of Germany’s flag.

Photo illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios. Photo: Oed/ullstein bild via Getty Images

Angela Merkel has been the face of European leadership, a global power broker, a force for stability and a trusted friend to multiple U.S. presidents. But she’s about to hand over the keys to Europe’s economic powerhouse and one of the world’s most respected countries.

Why it matters: Both of the leading candidates to replace Merkel are positioning themselves as her political heir. But whoever wins will likely have to chart a different course than Merkel has, including navigating the thorny balance of power between the U.S. and China.

Merkel's style of "careful incrementalism" has seen Germany through several crises, says Constanze Stelzenmüller of the Brookings Institution, but it increasingly appears inadequate to the current challenges.

  • On issues like climate change and China, Merkel has been reticent to disrupt a status quo that benefits the German economy, particularly the auto industry.
  • "[Merkel's] exquisitely tempered balancing style was fantastic for brokering results at European conferences," Stelzenmüller says. "It’s clearly not the best approach when you are dealing with aggressive authoritarian powers, and she has clearly not given enough thought to preparing Germany for a much more disruptive future."

The consensus is shifting in Berlin when it comes to relations with Russia and in particular China, notes Sudha David-Wilp of the German Marshall Fund.

  • She says it will be difficult for the next chancellor to "walk the line that Merkel has," of speaking up for democratic values and sticking close to the U.S., while also protecting the German export machine.
  • Merkel has delayed a decision on whether to allow Huawei into Germany's 5G networks and helped seal a (since frozen) EU-China investment deal in December, over the objections of the incoming Biden administration.
  • "It’s gotten to the point that it’s splitting Germany and Europe," David-Wilp says.

Who’s next: The race to replace Merkel is between Olaf Scholz, the leader of the Social Democrats, and Armin Laschet, Merkel's successor as leader of the Christian Democrats.

  • Both are effectively running as continuity candidates, but voters may see more parallels to Merkel in the technocratic Scholz than the jovial, gaffe-prone Laschet, who managed just 10% in a recent poll of Germans' preferred chancellor candidates, to 31% for Scholz.

Many Germans view the end of the Merkel era with trepidation. She remains the country's most popular politician by some distance, and her nickname of "Mutti," or mom, speaks to the national role she has played for so long.

  • “The absence of a leader as experienced, resourceful and well-networked as Angela Merkel will make itself felt in times of disruption and insecurity," Stelzenmüller predicts.

The bottom line: “The new chancellor, whoever that is, won’t have the same place on the international scene at the beginning. That’s for sure," a European diplomat tells Axios.

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