Angela Merkel’s political passing

Angela Merkel’s political passing
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German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s announced 2021 retirement already is affecting Germany, as a new generation of politicians vies for leadership. Reportedly, Merkel’s hand-chosen successor is Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU)’s secretary general. Others within the party, including arch-conservative Friedrich Merz, have announced their candidacy. A replacement also could emerge from outside of the ruling party, since recent polling showed only 24 percent of the German electorate willing to support the CDU. The Green party took second place, with 20 percent support.  

Merkel has said that her fourth term as chancellor will be her last, but it is possible that she will be forced out of office as early as December. That is the date of party elections for a new leader.  If someone such as Merz is named chair, it is more than likely that he would force an early resignation.

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A transformative figure in German politics, Merkel is the first female head of the CDU and first female chancellor. A scientist by training, she is the first “Ossie” to reach the highest level of government. Merkel grew up in East Germany, the former German Democratic Republic (GDR).  Her politics have evolved over the years, but she has ruled in a manner consistent with support for German business and the German economy.

She long has sought better relations with Russia, possibly influenced by the more than 800 companies who are members of the Russian-German Chamber of Commerce. Her strong endorsement of the Nord Stream II natural gas pipeline, against the wishes of the United States, can be explained by the economic benefits the pipeline brings to her country.

Even her most controversial decision — allowing almost 1 million Syrian refugees into Germany in 2015 — benefited German industry. Germany has a negative rate of natural population growth. Every day, approximately 500 more Germans die than are born. The only way to keep the population stable, and keep the German factories working, is to import immigrants. The waves of Syrian immigrants could be seen as a long-term solution to the need for workers to pay for the generous German social benefits. The German population disagreed with this solution, however, and Merkel’s political decline began with this decision.

For the United States, Merkel’s announcement means little. First, if the chancellor manages to hold onto power until 2021, a lot could happen in the intervening period. Two years is a lifetime in politics. Second, even though Merkel’s business acumen pushed her closer to Moscow, she still wanted to maintain good relations with the United States. Former White House adviser Ben Rhodes said the chancellor was so close to President Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaBudowsky: Biden or Beto: Where's the beef? Super Tuesday bonanza raises stakes for Dems Whatever happened to nuclear abolition? MORE that she shed a tear after he left office. “She’s all alone,” the former president supposedly commiserated.

Her relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin have been more difficult. After Putin spoke to the German parliament, Merkel told her friends it was all “KGB talk,” and that Putin never could be trusted. For his part, in 2007, Putin tried to intimidate Merkel with his dog during a summit meeting. “I understand why he had to do this,” she told reporters, “to prove he is a man.”

Merkel has not been a friend to Ukraine, opposing NATO membership for the country in Bucharest in 2008 and in Chicago in 2012. In 2014, however, when Russia seized Crimea and fomented rebellion in eastern Ukraine, Merkel supported American sanctions on the Kremlin.  This was a courageous decision that angered her eastern neighbor and German business interests. (A recent poll of the German-Russian Chamber of Commerce showed that 91 percent of its membership supports the lifting of sanctions.) While Merkel always has advocated talks with Russia, her support for the sanctions have not wavered.

Merkel has been a behind-the-scenes leader of the European Union, whose leadership came to public notice only during the euro crisis. She has continued to support the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and faced with withering criticism from President Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump mocks wind power: 'When the wind doesn't blow, just turn off the television' Pentagon investigator probing whether acting chief boosted former employer Boeing Trump blasts McCain, bemoans not getting 'thank you' for funeral MORE, she noted, “Germany does a lot for NATO. Germany is the second largest provider of troops, the largest part of our military capacity is offered to NATO, and until today we have a strong engagement toward Afghanistan.”  

In the same meeting, Merkel said she did not need reminding of the nature of the Russian government: “I have experienced myself how a part of Germany was controlled by the Soviet Union. I am very happy that today we are united in freedom, the Federal Republic of Germany. Because of that we can say that we can make our independent policies and make independent decisions. That is very good, especially for people in eastern Germany.”

In the end, the chancellor has made decisions based on what she believed was right for Germany. Her warming relations with Putin are a result of America’s shrinking role on the world stage. “The times in which we could completely depend on others is, to some extent, over,” she said. “We Europeans have to take our fate into our own hands.” A new German leader will be faced with the same forces and, logically, will make many of the same foreign policy decisions as Chancellor Merkel.

James J. Coyle, Ph.D., is a non-resident senior research fellow at the Atlantic Council. He previously was director of Middle East studies at the U.S. Army War College, first secretary for political-military affairs at the U.S. Embassy in Turkey, and a special assistant to the FBI/New York Joint Terrorism Task Force. He is the author of “Russia’s Border Wars and Frozen Conflicts” (2017).