The Observer’s take on the fight to succeed Angela Merkel | Editorial observer
ANgela Merkel’s long goodbye as the German Chancellor finally draws to a close this weekend as votes in federal elections are numbered – at least in theory. If the latest opinion polls are to be believed, there will be no clear winner. No party should have an overall majority in the Bundestag. Coalition talks on forming a new government could take months. In the meantime, in practice, Merkel remains in charge.
The uncertainty over who will replace her is a big departure from the often predictable politics of the past 16 years. But you shouldn’t get excited. Neither Olaf Scholz, who heads the Social Democrats (SPD), the largest center-left party, nor Armin Laschet, Merkel’s conservative choice as successor to the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), offer programs radically different. Both men emphasize continuity while fostering modest and incremental change.
It is a problem. The campaign highlighted pressing issues that were ignored during the Merkel era. One is pension reform for an aging population. Another is insufficient public investment in health care, utilities, housing and broadband. Recent flooding in western Germany has revealed a lack of structural resilience. Critics say Merkel has done far too little to tackle climate change.
Would a hypothetical Scholz-led ruling coalition comprising the Pro-Business Greens and Liberals (FDP) have enough weight and unity of purpose to meet such challenges? Could it be a similar combination of parties led by Laschet? It is possible that Greens leader Annalena Baerbock could still emerge in the lead, but her ability to make real change is also limited by her need for allies.
The risk to German democracy in the midst of all this haggling is that a weak and resulting compromise coalition can disappoint and alienate and push frustrated voters to the extremes represented by the far left Die Linke and the far right AfD . Neither side should be doing particularly well this time around. But that could change if a post-Merkel government serves more of the same thing.
This would be bad news for Germany but also for Europe and Great Britain, who both need a strong and confident partner in Berlin. Merkel, an accomplished consensus builder, has helped hold the EU together during successive financial, migration and pandemic crises. On the other hand, it was notoriously lacking in strategic vision. It has far preferred to sever energy and trade agreements with Russia and China rather than face the authoritarian threat they represent.
Scholz and Laschet both advocate closer integration with the EU. Both support the creation, alongside NATO, of a European army and a defensive union. Unlike the anti-American pacifists to his left, Baerbock also supports NATO, advocates a tougher line on Beijing and Moscow, and wants a “value-oriented foreign policy.” She says the EU must be “self-sufficient” as the US alliance becomes less and less predictable.
Yet it is not clear whether any of these chancellor candidates will fully support President Emmanuel Macron’s ideas on the EU’s ‘strategic autonomy’ or how far they could go towards fiscal union and economic, ideas that Merkel has always kept at bay. In Scholz’s case, there are also potential tensions with Ursula von der Leyen, the German President of the European Commission and longtime friend of Merkel.
In the absence of a strong lead from Berlin, Macron could attempt to expand his influence over the future direction of the EU. But an uphill battle for his re-election in April will distract him and may even defeat him. The greatest danger is the paralysis within the EU, corresponding to that of Germany, in the face of the great geopolitical, climatic, trade, energy and technological challenges it faces – and a growing risk of internal fragmentation.
All of this could negatively affect Britain, which will rely on German goodwill and common sense if it is ever to forge a rational post-Brexit political and security relationship with Brussels and resolve trade disputes, the Northern Ireland and cross-Channel migrants. Merkel provided both. His successor, whoever he is, cannot do it.