What Merkel’s Stepdown Means for Germany and the Rest of Europe

By Paul Witry

On October 29th, German Chancellor Angela Merkel announced her intention to step down from her position as the head of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), a center-right political party often considered Germany’s most powerful. [1] This was followed by her announcement that she will not be seeking re-election as German chancellor in 2021. After holding power for 13 years in office, Merkel ‘s grasp on power is coming to an end. These announcements came following a poor weekend of polling for the CDU and the Social Democratic Party (SPD) on October 28th, the SPD being the party with which Merkel’s CDU is joined in a somewhat contentious coalition. The parties have faced a year full of internal disagreements and fighting, sowing discontent within their support base and party members alike.[2]

Fast forward to December, the tectonic shift in power has commenced. On December 7th, the CDU elected Ms. Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer to the leadership after a runoff against candidate Friedrich Merz. Annegret. Kram-Karrenbauer is considered the uniting force that the CDU requires to pull together their coalition with the SPD and ultimately secure many of the votes which had been lost over the past years. While not outwardly endorsed by the Chancellor herself, Kramp-Karrenbauer was the clear favorite from Merkel’s perspective. Known to the German public as AKK, Kramp-Karrenbauer has shown her political acumen with 18 years of experience under her belt as a well-regarded leader. [3] This selection also places her high on the list of potential Chancellor-elects if the CDU manages to win the race in 2021. This decision by the CDU indicates that it will be feasible for Merkel to see out the end of her term through 2021 as Kramp-Karrenbauer aligns closely with the Chancellor on some issues. In her October speech, Merkel had voiced that she would be “willing” to finish out her term, but there was some speculation as to the removal of her from power amid turmoil in the party. [4]

As the dust begins to settle for the next few years, what does this mean in the broader scope of the European Union? The region faces fires on multiple fronts, with some forecasting a significant downturn in support for the institution. Merkel’s open border policy for Germany was controversial at best, dropping support for the CDU and shifting it toward the Green and alt-right AfD party, who has received a solid 13% support in polls. CDU support has continued to dwindle, as has the support of their Bavarian sister party, the CSU. AKK stood behind Merkel’s open-door migration policy in 2015, but has indicated that this may soon be restricted. Additionally, she stands as a staunch Catholic conservative, who is particularly opposed to same-sex marriage. Nevertheless on policies concerning domestic issues such as minimum wage, Kramp-Karrenbauer maintains a more liberal position. For the European Union, Merkel’s departure in 2021 may symbolize a fundamental reduction of power for the political entity, particularly in the wake of the fast approaching Brexit. Additionally, turmoil within France’s political realm could, too, spell real trouble for the region. In mid-November Merkel and Macron pledged to focus their efforts of the stabilization of the region as the captains of the two largest economies in the EU post-Brexit. [5] This effort, however, may be in vain if Merkel’s successor proves to not to be as powerful a leader as the thirteen-year veteran politician.

The run for Chancellor in 2021, however, is far from decided with the installment of Kramp-Karrenbauer as the new party leadership. There will be a crowded field of others vying to take the highest place in German politics. One of those will likely be Armin Leaschet, a fierce Merkel follower and loyalist to her policy decisions. He, along with many in the CDU, voiced concerns regarding AKK’s election, citing the need to make more conservative policies in order to appease the Merz camp. His role as a member of the Bundestag and most recently the North Rhine-Westphalia region has kept him largely under the radar until recently. His Merkel-centric political agenda may serve him in good stead while making a run for the office of Chancellor, as Germany has seen massive economic prosperity under her rule. Leaschet argues that Germany should adopt a more proactive than reactive mindset when addressing their relationship with the EU. This reputation of success has been marred by some setbacks and policy spats, which may ultimately result in a very different type of Chancellor being elected. [6]

Another possible contender in the 2021 election, and one who threw his hat in the ring for the leadership position this past vote, is Health Minister Jen Spahn. A conservative politician and staunch opponent of Merkel’s immigration policies, Spahn did not make it past the first round of the leadership vote for the CDU slot. This is thought to be due in part to the strong support from party elites which Menz managed to garner in a short period of time. A 2021 run for Spahn, however, could mean a massive shift in the dynamics of the race, leading to an overall more conservative and closed-door Germany in terms of the European Union and the international stage as a whole. [7]

How will Germany and the European Union fare over the next five years? Only time will tell. There are those who have already sounded the doomsday alarm for the members of the Union, while others believe there are plenty of options to help maintain the region. However, as Merkel begins to slowly relent her grip on power, Kramp-Karrenbauer will seek to solidify herself as not only a front-runner in the 2021 race, but as someone who is not just a “mini-Merkel” as she has been dubbed by many.

Paul Witry is a senior at Loyola University Chicago where he is studying Political Science and International Relations.

[1] “Angela Merkel will step down as CDU party leader in December.” Economist.com. (2018). Retrieved on Dec. 17, 2018. https://www.economist.com/europe/2018/11/01/angela-merkel-will-step-down-as-cdu-party-leader-in-december

[2] Ibid.

[3] Hockenos, Paul. “The Next Merkel? Not Quite.” ForeignPolicy.com (2018) Retrieved on Dec. 17, 2018. https://foreignpolicy.com/2018/12/14/the-next-merkel-not-quite/

[4] Connolly, Kate. “Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer elected Merkel’s successor as CDU leader.” Theguardian. (2018). Retrieved on Dec. 17, 2018. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/dec/07/annegret-kramp-karrenbauer-elected-merkels-successor-as-christian-democrat-leader


[5] Anderson, Emma. “Merkel, macron pledge to take join ‘responsibility’ for Europe’s future”. Politico.eu. (2018). Retrieved on Dec. 17, 2018. https://www.politico.eu/article/angela-merkel-emmanuel-macron-pledge-to-take-joint-responsibility-for-europes-future/

[6] “CDU’s big beasts line up to compete as Merkel slowly exits.” Financial Times (2018) Retrieved on Dec. 17, 2018 https://www.ft.com/content/6d5f2f22-fef3-11e8-aebf-99e208d3e521

[7] “Angela Merkel will step down as CDU party leader in December.” Economist.com. (2018). Retrieved on Dec. 17, 2018. https://www.economist.com/europe/2018/11/01/angela-merkel-will-step-down-as-cdu-party-leader-in-december

Image Source: https://www.cnbc.com/2018/12/08/germany-cdu-election-the-mini-merkel-win.html