For now, Europe will get more of the Merkel it knows so well: pragmatic, process-minded, and vision-free.
Angela Merkel’s announcement that she will not seek re-election as chair of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) at the party’s December 2018 congress has caught Berlin by surprise. After all, Merkel has shown remarkable patience in enduring several state election losses, quarrels between the two conservative parties of government, and the many compromises needed to maintain the CDU’s grand coalition with the Social Democratic Party (SPD). But she seems to have finally had enough. Since the autumn 2017 federal elections, it has been widely anticipated that this would be her last term as chancellor. Now that she has confirmed this, her party is in turmoil: there have never been more than two candidates running for the CDU’s top job, and the last time its delegates had to choose between two candidates was in 1971, when Helmut Kohl lost to Rainer Barzel.
The disruption extends beyond Merkel’s party. Merkel’s decision has intensified pressure on Christian Social Union (CSU) chair Horst Seehofer to follow suit. And, even within the SPD, the prospect of a new CDU leadership quickens the heartbeat of many who know that looking different is often easier and more politically effective than thinking different.
At the same time, Merkel has laid out her plans for the final stage of her chancellorship: although she is making way for a new leader of the CDU, she is determined to remain chancellor until the next general election, scheduled for autumn 2021. In practical terms, this means she will remain in office for as long as the current coalition between the CDU, the CSU, and the SPD holds – or for as long as it would take to form another governing coalition following a snap election.
As the German constitution only allows for a constructive vote of no confidence, Merkel will remain chancellor until 2021 unless she resigns or an absolute majority that supports another politician emerges in the Bundestag. Thus, the next leader of her party will not automatically become chancellor. Whoever is elected chair at the CDU’s December congress will have to reach an arrangement under which Merkel stays in the chancellery. This is particularly significant for candidates for the post who have been critical of her: Friedrich Merz, who headed the CDU/CSU faction in parliament until 2002, when Merkel defenestrated him; and Jens Spahn, the self-styled future of the conservative wing of his party. Unlike CDU Secretary-General Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, Merz and Spahn will need to convince the 1,000 delegates at the party congress that they can work with Merkel effectively.
Angela Merkel is now a special kind of lame duck
The new CDU chair will be keen to succeed Merkel in government partly because this would allow him or her to lead the next election campaign with the authority and credentials of office. But for this to happen, the coalition would have to agree to appoint the new CDU leader as chancellor. The wording of Merkel’s declaration on her future mentions that she has no intention of stepping down ahead of time. And SPD leaders have no interest in boosting the profile of a politician who they will compete against in the next election. Indeed, the SPD wants Merkel to remain in the chancellery precisely because her days there are numbered. Her guarantee that she will stay in office leaves SPD leaders in a catch-22: either sustain a coalition they increasingly dislike under her rule; leave the coalition and trigger the formation of a new one under a different chancellor; or leave and face new elections they are likely to lose badly.
Meanwhile, Merkel is now a special kind of lame duck. She can hardly launch bold initiatives or recommit Germany to Europe in any substantial way when her party is focused on replacing its leadership. Yet this may suit her reading of the situation in Europe. It is quite possible that she prefers not to: act on French President Emmanuel Macron’s agenda for Europe; deepen European fiscal integration while Italy rebels against EU budgetary rules; pursue an integration agenda on migration and border security, despite many European capitals’ unwillingness to follow suit; or launch new European security projects that require an increased financial and political commitment from Germany. However, inaction on all these issues runs counter to one of her key arguments for maintaining both the governing coalition and her chancellorship for another three years – that the country and Europe need her experience, her international standing, and a functioning government at a crucial juncture in German and European affairs.
Merkel will serve her party well if she ends the coalition herself at some point, be it due to unacceptable new demands from the SPD or to claims from the Bavarian CSU. In the elections that followed, her party would run under a changed leadership team that might appeal to voters as a new actor even as an experienced CDU leader held the chancellery. Although the move might not be enough to return the CDU to its former position of strength, it could well halt its decline.
Overall, Europe will get more of the Merkel it knows so well: pragmatic, process-minded, and vision-free. For as long as she is in office, there will be no German strategy of seismic change – of energetic policy initiatives that demolish the status quo. This will be frustrating for Macron. He will find that, despite his dealings with liberal leaders elsewhere in Europe, Germany remains his indispensable partner. Yet Macron can take solace in the fact that Merkel’s Germany will not turn away from Europe, pursuing more nationalistic policies or some version of a “third way” between the EU and the United States. Even with a lame-duck chancellor, Berlin has substantial resources it could draw on to prevent the European project from falling apart, contain those who would ignore the Brussels rulebook, and keep the EU policy machine running. For both the EU and Merkel’s party, this may not rule out future turbulence but it can certainly prevent a collapse.