The German political landscape has been in flux for several years and while Angela Merkel’s CDU and its CSU partner in Bavaria remain dominant, their level of domination has slipped in both federal and regional elections. Upon entering office in 2005, Merkel became the domineering political figure in the European Union and remained so until this day. In many respects, while most mainstream and even some upstart German parties have had few complaints about Merkel’s foreign and economic policies, her domestic policies and pan-European policies have led to a fracture in the post-war and moreover the post-reunification political consensus in Germany.
At the heart of the matter is the migration crisis dating to 2015 when waves of economic migrants, refugees and those in an ambiguous category somewhere between the two began landing on the shores of the EU en masse. Faced with how to address the crisis Merkel uttered the famous phrase “Wir schaffen das” (we can manage this).
While those three simple words were largely greeted with optimism in 2015, since then the words have become a mark of Merkel’s failure to anticipate the size and scope of the migrant crisis as well as the anger that it would cause within Germany and among multiple EU governments that opposed what has come to be known as Merkel’s open door policy. Moreover, the Wir schaffen das policy of Merkel has led to the election of governments in Italy, Czech Republic, Austria and a re-election of the anti-Wir schaffen das Hungarian government that have all served as de-facto plebiscites on Merkel’s flagship policy that she promoted not only in Germany but in the EU as a whole. Moreover the sustained popularity of French opposition Marine le Pen has also been widely due to the anger surrounding Merkel’s migration policies.
The election of Donald Trump while certainly not an EU leader, further bolstered this trend throughout the wider western world as Trump never hesitates to criticise Merkel’s migration policies in a number of different contexts. The Trump phenomenon in the United States moreover highlighted the disconnect between central and western Europe’s political elite who were very anti-Trump and new political movements throughout Europe including the AdF party in German whose messages were either similar to Trump’s or in some cases to the right of Trump.
At the same time, while the anti-Trump press in North America bestowed Merkel with the implicitly arrogant title of “leader of the free world”, a moniker typically reserved for the American President, the expectations that western liberals hoisted onto Merkel’s shoulders proved to be too heavy in the end. While many had hoped that Merkel would use her clout in the EU to isolate or even influence the United States, while the US has isolated itself from many of its erstwhile Asian allies, when it comes to Europe, Trump has thus far succeeded in making many EU based companies worry about the possibility of sanctions due to their business dealings with Iran while ultimately, the recent meeting between Angela Merkel, French President Macron, Russian President Putin and Turkish President Erdogan proved that while Turkey and Russia are now the primary movers in the Syrian peace process, Europe can do little other than tacitly accept the new status quo in the Middle East in which Turkey and Russia are predominant.
Furthermore, with Trump turning against the EU not just in terms of rhetoric but in terms of placing new tariffs on Europe and threatening additional tariffs, under Merkel’s leadership the EU has become lost in a purgatory between a once sympathetic United States and a Chinese superpower that wants to trade more freely with Europe but ultimately one which has been disappointed with Europe’s lethargy in respect of signing up to a China-EU trade agreement fit for the 21st century. Here too as Merkel acted as and set herself up to be Europe’s major political figure, much of the disappointment in this regard is being expressed towards the German Chancellor.
Merkel was first elected as the centre-right/liberal technocrat that she was and remains. While her leadership in the 2008 financial crisis saw her effectively take charge of the Greek economy and force southern Europe to “northernise” its economic practises, the days when Merkel ruled the roost are clearly over and much of the political earthquake leading to her gradual demise occurred within the borders of the former East Germany where she was born.
As the years wore on, Merkel’s technocratic image was replaced as she became seen as an “anti-Trump saviour” to western liberals while she equally became a “new world order villain” among those on mainly the modern populist right but also some on the traditional hard left.
In many ways it is ironic that her technocratic career ended up with Merkel’s public image being that of a supremely polarising figure. This contrasts sharply with the image she cultivated for herself in 2005 as a figure who could unify Europe and forge a more efficient western alliance centred around her neo-liberal and technocratic strategies.
Today, European society and European politics have been transformed by the migrant crisis and the arrival of Donald Trump that has ended Merkel’s desire to see more harmonised trans-Atlantic trade. Furthermore, the EU is still deeply confused and contradicted about how to make the most of what China has to offer, while Britain has voted to leave the European Union and Europe’s western Eurasian borderlands are now firmly under the influence of both Russia and Turkey.
When it comes to getting what she wanted, Merkel won many battles. But when it comes to the major geopolitical and economic issues of the 21st century, Merkel lost many a war. While she will likely continue to remain Chancellor of Germany for just under three more years, Merkel who had gradually become a lame duck in all but name after 2015 is now officially a lame duck and so too is her brand of liberalism that many thought was an irreversible political trend in 21st century Europe.