A few more months, and Europe’s face will change. When exactly Angela Merkel will leave the chancellery after 16 years in power is anyone’s guess. This depends on the outcome of the German election on September 26, and the time it will take to build a new coalition government.
Just as unpredictable as that election’s outcome is the shape that the European Union will take with Merkel no longer around. Representing the economically most powerful and politically most stable EU member state, the German chancellor became its key player and facilitator of compromise solutions almost by default. She helped steer the EU through a string of crises, starting with the global financial crisis of 2008-09, with much tactical finesse, while sometimes losing sight of the strategic imperatives. It seems she is trying to make up for this in her final stretch.
Her successor, whoever he or she will be, may not be so lucky. “The preconditions for his or her European policy will be different,” warns Jana Puglierin in our Summer 2021 issue. “What’s more, the COVID-19 crisis has brought to light how much Germany has neglected its infrastructure and how little it has invested in digitalization. The crisis has also shown that Germans, too, are not immune to growing euroskepticism and that further support for EU integration should not be taken for granted.”
And who could fill the void? French President Emmanuel Macron will certainly try, but like in 2017-18, the German and French election cycles are far from perfectly aligned. Macron may have to wait until the beginning of 2022—the first half of which coincides with the French EU presidency—for a new German government to be up and running, before he faces his own tough re-election battle in April.
“The most effective leadership in the EU is shared leadership, and there is no better way to achieve this than through Franco-German cooperation,” argues Claire Demesmay, “The question is whether the new German government will be ready in time—and will stand side-by-side with the French president.” The position of another contender, Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi, is even more precarious, Nicoletta Pirozzi reminds us. But “Super Mario” is certainly the country’s best bet to return to the top of European decision-making.
Elsewhere, the hopes for a post-Merkel government are high, too. Miguel Otero-Iglesia makes the case for Berlin to finally consider a “Südpolitik” to complement its existing (but barely functioning) Ostpolitik, and Slawomir Sierakowski predicts that, given the likely participation of the Greens in a new German government, relations with Poland in particular will get worse before they get better.
But maybe that’s exactly what Europe needs after Merkel’s departure: a reinvigorating shake-up.
Henning Hoff is Executive Editor of INTERNATIONALE POLITIK QUARTERLY.