Mysterious and transparent, cautious but daring, cordial yet ferocious. In a few weeks’ time, Angela Merkel will bow out, leaving behind some unanswered questions about her true personality. She is Germany’s eight Chancellor since the birth of the Bundesrepublik. In the last seventy years, the Bundesliga counted only eight trainers, while the Berlin Philarmonic contented itself with seven directors. For Germans, stability is not an abstract idea, it’s a value to live by.
Angela Merkel’s sixteen year-long leadership at the helm of the federal government - first with the SPD, then with the Liberal Party, then again twice with the Social Democrats - has not only shown her competence and ability. It has made her an icon respected by allies and rivals alike. Merkel was ready to step down four years ago, but the Brexit referendum and the arrival of Donald Trump pushed her to continue steering the ship of Europe’s largest economy amid rather troubled waters. Her time as the head of government corresponds to Helmut Kohl’s chancellorship and beats Konrad Adenauer by two years. But she differs from all her predecessors, as she is quitting by her own volition, not following a defeat.
The end of this long political chapter seems easier than its beginning. Thirty years ago, when she entered politics, Angela Merkel had to cope with three major stumbling blocks: she was a woman, she came from the East, and she had a background in science. Three serious obstacles in a world that was essentially male, Western, and populated by lawyers. Nonetheless, Kohl’s “girl” made her way into the party and then into government, carrying out the political patricide of her mentor with conviction and determination. What followed is a story of leadership on the German and European political scene, unfolding over the years with bursts of impulses and hesitations, with pragmatic intuitions and delays; yet always inspired by rigour and discipline, reflecting her years of education behind the iron curtain.
While the Chancellor takes her leave from a country that prefers reliability to charisma and concrete actions to proclamations, questions still loom over what will happen after her departure. The voter fatigue facing the CDU and its candidate Armin Laschet demonstrates that not even a traditional political party with solid roots is safe from the negative backlash of a long season in power. On the eve of the federal election, scheduled for September 26th, the party seems squeezed on both sides: on the right by the hard core of the AfD, which is irrelevant on a parliamentary level but has taken many conservative votes away from the CDU/CSU.At the same time, it has been attacked on the left by Olaf Scholz and Annalena Baerbock, both tending to court the centre’s swing voters with reassuring buzzwords. After Merkel’s encroachment on the traditional playing field of the Left (on issues such as welfare, civil rights, and the environment), now a kind of historical nemesis could push the SPD, thanks to Scholz’s measured and reassuring personality, to conquer some ground among the moderate voters orphaned by Merkel, and who are not convinced by Laschet’s uncertain direction.
Merkel could have been more involved in her succession plans, but she was perhaps too tired to fully deal with it. Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, who stumbled into the Thuringia crisis of February 2020 and was penalized by a weak leadership, did not work out; Friedrich Merz, supported by Schäuble and opposed by Merkel, did not pass the test; Armin Laschet was also a let-down, despite the Kanzlerin cautiously betting on him early on. For a leader who has been at the forefront for so long, it must not be easy to draw up an alternative leadership and identify who can replace her. But "après moi le déluge” is never a good formula.
The truth is that Angela Merkel has managed to keep the various souls of her party together for a long time. After the announcement that she would no longer be competing for a new government, the party’s internal cohesion came up short, the various political currents regained strength and the divisions in the leadership have become apparent, as has the vagueness of its policies. For this reason, the polls, for what they’re worth, show the voting intentions for the CDU/CSU at a disastrous 20% today, by far the worst result in its entire history.
In the aftermath of the vote, all options seem possible. The flags of the various possible coalitions are being brandished indulgently: Jamaica, Germany, Kenya, Red-red-green, traffic light, black-green and other kaleidoscopic constellations. If on September 26th, the polls were to show that it was impossible to form a coalition of two parties to gain a majority in the Bundestag, and it would therefore be necessary to enter laborious negotiations to form a three party coalition, we would undoubtedly find ourselves faced with an unprecedented outcome for Germany and one of dubious effectiveness. Even for those who are masters in the art of compromise, if two-party coalitions are already challenging , three-party coalitions can become too narrow a cage for everyone. Will Germany start resembling Holland?
However, beyond all the questions raised on the eve of the vote and the thickening clouds looming over German politics, there is a glimmer of hope. All the political forces actually in the running to form a new German government identify with the European integration project and consider the transatlantic relationship essential. It is only the extreme right (AfD) and the radical left (Linke) who do not share, albeit with different nuances, these two priorities. That is also why, judging by the polls and by the country’s underlying mood, both will continue to remain on the fringes of the field, failing to come into play at the federal level over the next four years. Germans love technological innovation, but remain wary of political novelties, when in reality they hold very little that is new and much that is old.
All European countries are looking closely at the outcome of the elections in Germany and its future government. It is logical that Italy, which has a privileged partner in Germany, should be in the front row among those most interested in the post-Merkel era. It is not only the strong economic and commercial integration that is a solid basis for bilateral relations. There are still considerable convergences and promising synergies between the two countries in the political field. Among other things, Italy shares with Germany a constructive approach to multilateralism, commitment to the goals of the global agenda, priority for the Mediterranean and attention to Africa. We certainly cannot be indifferent to Berlin's orientation on these issues, neither today nor tomorrow. The Italian government and Parliament are already well aware of how essential dialogue and collaboration with Germany is in the European framework, even when it comes to smoothing things over or avoiding misunderstandings. Whoever succeeds Angela Merkel will be an interlocutor of primary importance for Italy, regardless of the colour of the next coalition. Basic interests change much less quickly than leaders: a well-known concept, but one that is worth remembering.