LONDON: Just over a year ago, the New York Times was calling Angela Merkel “the reluctant leader of the west”. Now Ms Merkel is on her way out as the leader of Germany.
Her decision to stand down as chair of the Christian Democratic Union sets up a battle for the leadership of the German centre-right.
And although Ms Merkel plans to stay on as chancellor until 2021, the weakness of her governing coalition means that it is also possible she will be out of the top job within months.
Either way, the chancellor’s decision to step down as leader of the CDU raises three obvious questions. First, what will the Merkel era be remembered for? Second, why is it coming to an end? Third, what comes next?
THE END OF AN ERA
Ms Merkel’s years as chancellor are likely to be remembered as a period of growing prosperity and power for Germany.
The steady expansion of the German economy, the country’s low unemployment and the healthy state of its finances have contrasted markedly with the crisis-ridden economies of much of the rest of the eurozone.
As a result, Germany became the crucial player in determining the handling of the Greek debt crisis. Although Ms Merkel came in for much criticism in southern Europe, her steady and cautious approach was popular at home.
The extent to which Ms Merkel’s Germany had become the de facto diplomatic leader of Europe was underlined when Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 — and the German chancellor led the European response.
Both the euro and the Ukraine crises enhanced Ms Merkel’s reputation for steady leadership. But the chancellor’s reaction to the refugee crisis of 2015 was uncharacteristically daring.
BITTER OPPOSITION TO REFUGEES
By agreeing to let more than 1m refugees into Germany in 2015 and 2016, Ms Merkel gained plaudits as a humanitarian and an internationalist. But she also sparked a domestic backlash that has culminated in her decision to step down as party leader.
The bitter domestic opposition to her refugee policies has fuelled the rise of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, which is now the official opposition in the German parliament.
Support for Ms Merkel’s CDU has been falling, with the latest blow being its poor performance in this weekend’s state elections in Hesse. That has led to mounting discontent within the ruling party to which Ms Merkel has now had to respond.
LEADER OF THE WEST NO MORE
With Germany now clearly the dominant player within the EU, the policies adopted in Berlin, in the closing of the Merkel era, will be critical to the future of the euro, to the handling of Brexit and to the future of the EU’s relations with both Russia and the US.
Ms Merkel was awarded the unofficial title of “leader of the west” by those who looked to Germany to defend the multilateral rules-based order against the nationalist and protectionist policies of the administration of President Donald Trump in the US — and the revanchism of Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
But Ms Merkel’s retreat is likely to make Germany more introverted and unstable and therefore less able to lead in Europe or internationally.
GERMANY MOVING TO THE RIGHT
It is also probable that any successor to Ms Merkel as leader of the CDU will seek to move the party back towards the right, in response to the rise of the AfD. That could mean that Germany will take more “egocentric” positions on issues such as refugees and eurozone reform.
That, in turn, is likely to be bad news for the ambitious EU reforms proposed by France’s president Emmanuel Macron and will also mean that the EU takes a tough line with heavily indebted Italy.
However, the CDU is not the only mainstream German party that is in trouble. Its coalition partner, the centre-left SPD, is facing an even more serious decline as it cedes votes to the Greens and to the far-left Die Linke.
After a long period in which two centrist parties have dominated the political landscape, German politics is becoming more polarised and unpredictable.
In that sense, Germany is completely in line with global trends.