After spending more than a decade serving as the de facto leader of Europe, Angela Merkel has announced she will be stepping down as party chief for the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), Germany’s current ruling party. Merkel’s decision was accompanied by a confirmation that her current term as Chancellor will be her last. Her departure is significant and leaves the European Union (EU) with an uncertain future.
Merkel’s decision marks the end of an era, not only for the Federal Republic but also for the wider EU. Germany has long been at the centre of the European project as part of the Franco-German partnership that since 1945 has been the foundation of integration on the continent. Moreover, as the member state with the largest population and strongest economy, Germany is impossible to ignore.
In spite of its reluctance to offer strong leadership in the EU, held back by historical and domestic constraints, the recent crises the EU has experienced have allowed Berlin to test the waters and gradually take a more active role regarding crisis management within the Union.
This tentative venture into the spotlight accelerated almost as quickly as the unfolding crises. Before long Germany had become, and remains, Europe’s indispensable power. Significantly, within this period of crisis Merkel emerged as key figure given her crucial role as a consensus builder that forged difficult compromises between the EU-28 and external actors.
Her commitment to Europe has endured and helped hold a fragile EU together even as it stood on the verge of disintegration. Merkel kept Greece in the Eurozone, successfully saw through the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty and brought Russia to the negotiating table in an attempt to secure peace in Ukraine. Without her, the dynamic in Europe will surely change.
This comes at an important moment in the future of the EU. The crises afflicting the Union have substantially weakened it and its legitimacy seems to be declining. Fragmentation is becoming the EU’s new normal with divisions appearing along the traditional North-South and East-West lines, while the rise of populism across the continent fuels identity politics and nativism that threaten the integration project.
Merkel’s successor, dubbed ‘mini Merkel’ by the German Press, is Annegret Kramp- Karrenbauer. While the new CDU party chief may differ from her predecessor due to her more conservative policies regarding migration, Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer possesses an enduring loyalty to Merkel that, should she become Chancellor, will most likely result in some level of continuity in Berlin’s engagement with the EU.
However, in contrast to the caution and pragmatism that characterised Merkel’s leadership, Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer has a decisiveness that may have implications for Germany’s relations with Europe. The reluctant hegemon may have an opportunity shake its aversion to exercising its influence in a more overt manner. Nonetheless, Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer must remain sensitive to the still prevalent discomfort that persists across the continent that may receive this reinvigorated German leadership as dominance.
Additionally, as Merkel prepares to step down, the notoriously proEuropean French president Emmanuel Macron has attempted to position himself as the leader that could take her place at the helm of the EU.
Yet, Macron seems incapable of forging consensus and reform in the EU à la Merkel. Rather, his European ambitions have never been quite as well received by France’s fellow member states as he may have hoped. His calls for a European army have been met with reluctance and his reforms to the euro calling for ‘banking union and a fiscal capacity that allows for convergence in the Eurozone’ have proven equally unpalatable to other member states.
The recent ‘Yellow vest’ protests have only served to further restrict his European vision as his attention has been moved firmly back to domestic issues. With France aflame with reactions to his domestic reforms Macron’s hopes of becoming the next leader of Europe have essentially been dashed.
As Merkel prepares to step down it has become apparent that now more than ever Europe needs leadership that will be able to effectively manage the Union’s crisis, restoring legitimacy and stability and eliminating the trinity of economic uncertainty, cultural anxiety, and political alienation that has exacerbated divisions within the EU. With Merkel leaving a successor that may or may not be able take up the mantle and Macron unable to fill this role, the EU faces a future that is full of uncertainty.
Charlotte has recently graduated with a Bachelor of Arts from Monash University and has a particular interest in the EU and European politics.