after Angela Merkel, and after?

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On February 10, two events took place in Berlin which says a lot about Germany today and Europe today. In the Bavarian state representation office in the capital, a neoclassical villa near the Brandenburg Gate, a major report was launched. Published by the Munich Security Conference, ahead of its annual gathering of securocrats and foreign policy specialists, it proposed that the current era in world affairs be defined by “anti-Westernism”. The West, argues the report, declines both as an alliance and as an idea. The transatlantic relationship is unraveling, Europe is torn between different visions of its global role, and non-Western powers like China and India are multiplying.

It was a serious matter, with which members of the German political class must engage. However, their attention turned instead to the neighboring Konrad-Adenauer-Haus, the glass and steel headquarters of the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) of Angela Merkel, where Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer announced officially his resignation as party leader. She got the job in December 2018 after Merkel, looking ahead of her retirement in 2021, gave it up. The Chancellor’s favorite candidate and another CDU moderate, “AKK” had become the favorite to succeed Merkel. Yet she stood there, 14 months and many blunders and missteps later, abandoning her post and destroying Merkel’s carefully crafted succession plan.

His announcement obsessed German politics, turned it inward, and set aside the kinds of questions raised in the “Westlessness” report. This is partly due to circumstances which, although apparently parochial, crystallized various national neuroses.

It all started with the October 2019 elections in Thuringia, a hilly state in central Germany (home to Goethe’s Weimar) that was once part of East Germany. More than half of the votes went to Germany’s two hard-line parties, the far-right AfD and the Left Socialist Party (a descendant of the former East German Communist Party). The pre-existing state government – a coalition of the left with the moderate Social Democratic and Green parties – ended up running out of four seats by the majority. The CDU and the pro-business Little Free Democrats (FDP) both refused to work with the left party because of its past, so there was a stalemate.

But on February 5, the Thuringian branch of the FDP presented its own candidate, Thomas Kemmerich, to be prime minister of the Land. Unsurprisingly, the two parties often working together, the CDU supported him. Much more surprisingly, the AfD, which had its own candidate, also supported it. This CDU-FDP-AfD alliance led Kemmerich to a narrow victory of 45 votes to 44 and one abstention. Kemmerich became the first German Federal Minister since 1945 to be elected with the support of a party associated with nationalism and racism. The result was in line with a European-wide trend: the great wave of nationalist populist parties has stabilized, but traditional parties are increasingly willing to emulate and even work with them.

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It also created an immediate crisis for the CDU leadership in Berlin, breaking the party’s two golden rules: no cooperation with the left or the AfD. Merkel, on a trip to Africa, took a day to respond, but ultimately said Kemmerich should not rule with AfD support and that the Thuringian state elections should be repeated. Kramp-Karrenbauer echoed him. Kemmerich retired soon after.

But the damage – the feeling that the CDU central command was losing control – was done. Five days later AKK resigned. In her press conference, she appeared to criticize Merkel for making the CDU leader’s post available before there was a vacancy to be the party’s next candidate for chancellor; only by holding both positions could someone exercise the necessary authority, she suggested.

Kramp-Karrenbauer has also announced that she will remain in office until a candidate for chancellor is selected, a process which may well take until December. Serious contenders include Friedrich Merz (a conservative free-market and longtime rival of Merkel), Armin Laschet (a moderate Merkel and prime minister) and Jens Spahn (the young health minister and darling of the right urban). Daniel Günther (a young liberal prime minister) and Markus Söder (conservative but heterodox prime minister of Bavaria) also remain far away.

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Whoever succeeds Merkel will have to maintain a torn position between his urban and Western liberals on the one hand, and his Eastern and rural conservatives on the other; a coalition that is losing voters to the burgeoning German Greens on the left and the AfD on the right.

Above all, she or (almost certainly) he will have to answer the dominant question hanging over German policy: after Merkel, and after? The Chancellor remains a cryptic and popular figure. She appeased the country during a turbulent period and consolidated the reforms of her predecessors. Yet she presides over a comfortable but too sleepy Germany; a Germany that does not pay enough attention to broader technological, environmental and geopolitical changes; a Germany that should have read the “Westlessness” report but was rather obsessed with the latest twist in its own political soap opera. Under a Merz, the CDU could turn right, perhaps emulate the populism of Austrian Sebastian Kurz, move towards a compromise with the AfD and adopt a more nationalist pose in Europe. Under a Laschet or a Günther, he would be well prepared to form a coalition with the Greens that could deal with urgent internal and European issues left unanswered by Merkel. It is imperative that the Laschet / Günther side wins. “The absence of the West” is bad enough without “the absence of Germany”.


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