When Angela Merkel announced that she would not seek another term as German chancellor, for Brussels it was more like lengthening shadows at the end of the day than a storm out of the blue.
The Kanzlerindämmerung – the twilight of the chancellor – is already closely watched in the EU. Merkel’s struggles to form a coalition government in 2017 and skirmishes with her CSU coalition partners over migration in the summer brought home to the rest of Europe that her authority is ebbing away.
The decline of the EU’s longest-serving leader is discombobulating for other member states and with uncertainty over her successor and when they will take over, Germany is seen as a weaker actor in the EU.
“You will have a certain vacuum in Berlin, a chancellor who has already been weakened over the last months and years, who will not be strengthened by this,” said Janis Emmanouilidis, director of studies at the European Policy Centre.
Some EU diplomats had hoped that a summit in December would be the moment to make progress on a common European asylum policy and changes to the eurozone before European elections in 2019. “There are decisions to be taken in Brussels – tough ones. This won’t make things easier, it will make things more complicated,” Emmanouilidis said.
The fragility of the German government has already been evident in Brussels. Strains in the grand coalition mean Germany had no position on a law to reduce CO2 emissions from cars for eight months, too late for Berlin to exert much influence on proposals critical to a key industry.
Germany’s EU commissioner, Günther Oettinger, who was appointed by Merkel, alluded to similar problems. “We need an effective federal government without constant debates within the grand coalition, which weaken the ability to act in the EU.”
Some senior officials believe Merkel’s weakness is part of a wider pattern across Europe: declining trust in traditional parties, surging support for the radical left and right, and political fragmentation. All these factors make it even harder for the EU’s 28 governments to make decisions.
The sense of disquiet is heightened because Merkel was seen in 2016 as a bulwark for the liberal, free-trading order. In the immediate aftermath of the Brexit vote, she was quick to defend the EU’s four freedoms, a position the EU has stuck to ever since. A few months later, in her congratulatory message to US president-elect Donald Trump, Merkel promised cooperation on the basis of democracy, respect for the law and human dignity.
However, the weakening of the chancellor is unlikely to have an impact on Brexit. “Even among those who are critical of Angela Merkel, they are not critical of the chancellor with respect to Brexit: that’s not even an issue,” Emmanouilidis said.
László Andor, a former European commissioner, cautions over exaggerating Merkel’s significance. “The drama is not the fall of Merkel – the drama is the collapse of the SPD,” he said of Germany’s weakening centre-left party. “The structural importance of Germany will remain without her.”
Andor, an economist affiliated to Hungary’s Socialist party, said Merkel’s piecemeal approach would not be missed. “In economic governance, it has meant a preference of muddling through as compared to a systemic reform … Ending this may not be such a big problem.”
Judy Dempsey, long-term Berlin watcher at the Carnegie Europe thinktank, said other Europeans were worried about the chancellor’s departure. “Merkel has kept anti-Americanism at bay in Germany and she has kept Europeans united over sanctions on Russia,” she said. “The Europeans know that she is very important, but all these things have to be underpinned by a long-term strategy of what you want from Europe.”
She contends that Merkel has not been bold enough in setting out her vision for Europe and missed the chance to respond to French president Emmanuel Macron’s ambitious agenda, especially on eurozone reform.
“There was a great opportunity to respond to Macron once her coalition was formed, but she let the time slip by,” Dempsey said. “Merkel believes in technocratic Europe … but in terms of looking ahead to what kind of European architecture she would like, she has never spelt it out.”
Despite the absence of a Merkel philosophy in Europe – perhaps because of it – the chancellor is often touted to take on one of the EU’s big jobs; either the next president of the European commission or European council. Both positions fall vacant in late 2019.
Angela Merkel has denied interest in any EU job, according to German media reports.
David McAllister, a senior member of the Christian Democrats in the European parliament, said the chancellor would seek to keep her promise to serve out a full term. “Angela Merkel, when it comes to this, she is really German. Her word is her word,” he said.
Even if Merkel’s final term ends sooner rather than later, Emmanouilidis does not see her making a move to Brussels. “Imagine president of the commission Merkel, or president of the European council Merkel, having to call Berlin and ask her successor for favours. I don’t see her doing that.”