The end of Merkel’s reign may be Europe’s gain. (Photo via Unsplash)
As Europe’s biggest nation by population and GDP, Germany is Europe’s California. Coincidentally, their elections took place Sunday, less than two weeks after California’s (latest) recall election. With all the importance we attached to California’s leader, Europe looks to Germany’s choice even more.
They are the first among equals in the European Union. Whereas the U.S. President is significantly more powerful and famous than the governor of California, the head of the European Union is often overshadowed by Germany’s chancellor — which, for the last 16 years, has been Angela Merkel. Usually the only woman in the room, Europe’s great stateswoman announced in 2018 that she would retire after her fourth term expired in 2021.
Merkel will step down having cemented her own legacy but leaving her party in its worst spot since World War II. On Sunday, her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) received less than one-quarter of the vote and lost to its center-left rival the Social Democratic Party (SPD), who took slightly more than 25%.
Because no party gained a majority of seats, a coalition of multiple parties must be created to secure a majority. The past two elections, and three of the past four elections, witnessed a “grand coalition” between the center-right CDU and centre-left SPD. Those parties could again join together, but they have both publicly come out against it; regardless, the face of the coalition, Merkel, will be gone.
A right-wing coalition would involve the mostly-fascist Alternative for Deutschland (AfD) party, a non-starter for the other parties. A left-wing coalition composed of center-left SPD, also center-left Green party, and the far left Die Linke party, which has never been in a coalition, is feasible. But the most likely scenario is a “traffic light” combination of SPD (whose color is red), the Green party (green, duh), and the centrist libertarian Free Democratic Party (yellow).
Such a government would represent a leftward shift, but not a radical one. Europe, though stung by the loss of the widely popular Merkel, would not see Germany fall to her Eurosceptic (meaning opposed to the European Union) CDU successor, Armin Laschet, or be involved with the extremely Eurosceptic AfD party.
The difference between the various coalitions, in the eyes of Americans, is that the left generally favors European integration rather than American leadership (the far-left Die Linke is opposed even to NATO). The right is less focused on European political independence, instead favoring that power remain with European nation-states; they are like states-rights politicians in America. Plus, they favor the traditional order of American leadership.
When other democracies seemed to splinter into polarization and instability, Germany’s center-left and center-right parties held fast in the “grand coalition” that kept the moderates in power under a single leader for most of this century. They’ve been markedly open to migrants and focused on diplomacy rather than unilateralism under Merkel’s leadership. The country known chiefly to many Americans for its past fascism has been a bastion of democracy during America’s flirtation with authoritarianism.
Germany’s been more than a foil to America, though. Until Trump’s election, Merkel, the most powerful woman of this century, had worked well with U.S. presidents; the tens of thousands of U.S. troops permanently stationed in Germany are certainly an indication of our cooperation.
Despite the cooperation, and especially after Trump torpedoed our standing in Europe, what Germany lacked in population and GDP compared to the U.S., Merkel made up for with her widespread popularity and sense of stability. They become something closer to equals with the U.S., especially in global reputation.
However, Merkel often unintentionally undermined European power by making Germany the de facto capital of Europe and herself its de facto leader. President Macron of France is not nearly as popular as Merkel, and France isn’t the economic equal of Germany anyway. With her gone, it may be easier for the European Union to finally gain recognition as the chief political force of Europe, at least on an economic stage.
Merkel’s exit, combined with long-simmering anger over American unilateralism on matters diplomatic (Afghanistan, Iran nuclear deal) and economic (COVID-19 restrictions for Europeans going to the U.S., but not the other way around) — could be the tipping point for a general shunning of America or even concrete steps like the formation of a European army.
We’re not the superpower we once were, and Europe looks to equalize with us while competing (or even cooperating) with the rising powers of Asia. Trump showed Europeans that they have more in common with each other than with America, and Biden’s actions in Afghanistan and tough rhetoric toward China, Europe’s biggest trading partner, have chilled hopes that Trump was an aberration. They no longer trust our leaders, our military, or even that we have shared values.
All this is why the German elections are so crucial for American politics. In 2016, America’s biggest cheerleader in the European Union (the United Kingdom) voted to leave the bloc, and then we voted for a stridently anti-EU president. Last year we elected a supposed statesman who’d return America to its role as leader of the West. That hasn’t happened, and now Germany looks to have elected not just a pro-Europe coalition, but maybe even an anti-US one.
Obviously, Trump could have done much to prevent this. He could have not campaigned for European disintegration in the form of Brexit or not been so disrespectful of Europe as to draw the typically generic European Commission president Ursela von der Leyen to candidly express “relief … about the change of administration in Washington” upon Biden’s inauguration.
Speaking of Biden, the great multilateral hope has blocked Europeans from entering the U.S. despite Europe allowing us to go there, helped Australia back out of a trade agreement with France, and offended their greatest trade partner in China.
Instead of embracing European integration and working with their chosen leaders, we’ve forced them to either back down or stand up for themselves. Our leaders are not as popular as theirs, and it’s harder and harder to forcefully impose our will on others. Unfortunate though it is for Europe to see the U.S. prove unreliable, their own interests — economic, military, culture — are less and less aligned with those of the U.S.
The end of Merkel’s reign may be Europe’s gain. As Germans lose their unique grand coalition and its irreplaceable leader, the last gasp of powerful European nation-states may be here. The rise of China to replace Russia as the other great superpower is common talk show knowledge, but the polarization of the West might be the real story of the next age. No longer able to rely on Chancellor Merkel and American leadership, Europeans have little choice but to assert their own identity. If we don’t recognize that, we’ll get the isolation Trump wanted all along.