It is difficult to avoid the impression that the primary purpose of US President Obama’s recent trip to Europe was to persuade German Chancellor Angela Merkel to stand again for a fourth term.
Merkel is the only world leader with whom Obama has established a relationship that could be called close. In his long series of interviews earlier this year with The Atlantic, Obama admitted that Merkel is the only European leader he feels any genuine connection to.
Obama’s friendship and trust has in turn shaped many of Merkel’s policies. Her sanctions policy against Russia, her sudden decision to go against German Finance Minister Schauble’s policy of ejecting Greece from the Eurozone during peak of the Grexit crisis last year, and her equally sudden decision to throw open Germany’s and Europe’s doors to the flow of refugees from the various Middle East wars, strongly mirrored Obama’s positions on these questions.
Merkel’s remaining as German Chancellor therefore ensures for Obama that a close political ally committed to continuing his policies remains in place after Donald Trump – elected to follow a very different agenda to Obama’s – becomes President.
This explains Obama’s critical statements about Russia following his meeting with Merkel, his talk of ‘shared values’ (obviously a dig not just at Putin but also at Trump), his warnings against conducting a foreign policy based on ‘Realpolitik’ towards Russia, and his extraordinary decision together with Merkel to persuade the European leadership to extend the sanctions against Russia, a matter where Trump is widely believed to have a contrary view, and which Obama arguably ought to have left to the next President.
It is surely what also lies behind the strange media talk of Obama ‘passing the baton’ of leadership of the ‘free world’ to Merkel. It is highly likely that Obama – or individuals close to him – have inspired it.
In reality, Merkel’s ability to continue Obama’s policies once Obama is no longer on the scene, is open to doubt.
Certainly, Merkel cannot do this without US support. Germany has a large economy and is politically dominant in Europe. However, it is not remotely a global superpower like the US, and cannot possibly conduct an anti-Russian foreign policy against US opposition.
Were it to try and do so, it would quickly run up against overwhelming opposition in Europe from countries like Spain, Italy and France, which would no longer feel constrained to make their opposition to Germany’s anti-Russian policies clear if they knew that in doing so they had US support. Such a foreign policy line pursued against the wishes of the US would also very quickly run up against insurmountable opposition within Germany itself.
Merkel understands all this very well, which is why by all accounts (including her own) she hesitated so much in confirming her intention to stand again. Indeed it is quite likely that Obama had to pull out all the stops to persuade her do it.
The reality is that as a political leader, Merkel is well passed her sell-by date, a fact which explains the very cool reaction to her announcement that she is standing for a fourth term as Chancellor, in Germany and elsewhere. With the international situation completely different from 2005 when Merkel became Chancellor, Germany urgently needs a new leader with fresh ideas who is not compromised in the way that Merkel is by her past actions, to lead Germany and Europe forward. There are many people in Germany who can see this, and who long for Merkel to go.
Unfortunately, this does not mean that Merkel will definitely lose the election next year. Her greatest single skill as a politician, and her greatest single political achievement, has been to create a political desert around her.
There are no obvious successors to her in her own CDU party – she has been careful to ensure that none ever emerged – whilst the Social Democrat SPD – traditionally the main opponent and historic rival of the CDU – is in deep crisis, struggling to gain more than 20% of the vote as it has been perhaps fatally damaged by its loss of working class support because of the unpopular labour reforms of the Schroder era, and its current alliance with Merkel and the CDU.
Currently, Merkel is showing her usual skills in weakening the SPD even further by backing its single most popular leader – German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier – for the position of German President. Though this appears to be a favour to the SPD after the previous Green Party candidate for the Presidency pulled out, what it ultimately does is remove from the party political scene the one SPD politician with the weight to give the party some credibility as it prepares for the coming election.
Alternative parties have in recent years been appearing in Germany. Examples include the left wing Left Party and the right wing AfD. Both, however, are still relatively small. The extent to which either of these parties can grow to the point of posing a serious challenge to Merkel’s CDU in the space of just a year has to be open to doubt, especially in a political system that moves as slowly as Germany’s.
The dismal likelihood is therefore that despite having no fresh ideas – her talk following her announcement was about broadband and pensions, important issues certainly but essentially technocratic and hardly pivotal – and being looked on with scant enthusiasm by the German political class and the German public (her ratings, though still positive, are well down on her popularity of just a year ago), she will win the election essentially by default.
It is important, however, to remember that in Germany Chancellors and governments rarely lose power through elections. Indeed until 1998, when Gerhard Schroder’s SPD defeated Helmut Kohl’s CDU, in post-war Germany it had never happened.
As Merkel’s inadequacy to lead Germany in the new conditions becomes increasingly obvious, it is a given that she will eventually face a challenge despite her proven skill in seeing off or neutralising challengers, and regardless of whether she is re-elected or not.
When that happens, with her reputation in tatters and her popularity in free fall, Merkel may have come to regret heeding whatever advice Obama gave her to run again and continue as Chancellor.