What Angela Merkel's departure means for Germany and its allies

German Chancellor Angela Merkel after the weekly government Cabinet meeting on Oct. 31 in Berlin, Germany. Photo: Michele Tantussi via Getty Images

German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s decisions to step down as leader of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party in December and to not run for re-election in 2021 will have repercussions for Germany, Europe and the transatlantic relationship.

The big picture: Merkel’s leadership has been marked by her commitments to decency, multilateralism and diplomacy. Even in the face of the far-right-wing Alternative fur Deutschland (AfD), Germany's center will still hold, but her replacement will probably shift the CDU rightward.

Domestic politics will dominate Germany in the coming months. The CDU has been thrown into a leadership struggle to be settled in December.

  • Merkel herself will probably be spared criticism over her party leadership and her 2015 decision to allow 1 million refugees to enter Germany. But her successor will be charged with the difficult task of uniting the party, giving it some direction and winning back voters who defected to the anti-immigrant AfD.
  • If a new leader shifts the CDU further to the right, the party will risk losing voters to the Greens, the center-left environmentalist party that currently opposes the federal parliament and has been attracting disappointed voters.

Merkel has been a linchpin for the EU, keeping it united during the euro crisis and pushing all 28 member states to impose sanctions on Russia after its illegal 2014 annexation of Crimea and invasion of eastern Ukraine.

  • Merkel will still hold sway after December, but her authority will no doubt diminish.
  • Several EU leaders think it’s time to reconsider the sanctions.
  • Finally, unless Merkel has a change of heart, French President Emmanuel Macron can forget about winning support from Berlin for his ambitious reforms to further economically and politically integrate the EU. Merkel has so far kept Macron and the EU in waiting mode.

The transatlantic alliance will also be tested. There are two trends running throughout Europe:

  • An anti-Trump sentiment that feeds into anti-Americanism, particularly from left-wing parties.
  • A pro-Trump camp comprising populist and nationalist movements that embrace anti-immigrant and anti-globalist policies. It’s not surprising they have sympathies with Trump, who criticized Merkel’s support of refugees, free trade and the Iran nuclear deal.

What’s next: Unless Merkel feels liberated from the daily management of the CDU to make bold moves for Europe’s future, don’t expect any major EU integration or security initiatives from Berlin — at least not before European parliamentary elections are held next spring and a new European Commission has been chosen.

Judy Dempsey is a nonresident senior fellow at Carnegie Europe and editor-in-chief of Strategic Europe.

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