A few weeks ahead of the Bundestag election on 26 September, Germans are still struggling to imagine their country without Chancellor Angela Merkel. This may be to do with the profiles of the candidates or the low quality of the electoral campaign. But the personality of Merkel seems to provide an even better explanation for Germans’ wariness about seeing someone else in the chancellor’s seat. Merkel was a perfect symbol of the German Zeitgeist at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Her policy style and decisions have reflected the significant changes happening in German society and politics in the last 16 years, as well as an overwhelming desire to maintain the status quo for as long as possible by avoiding revolutionary shifts. No wonder Germans will miss her.
Will other Europeans miss her too?
European summits without the ‘empress of Europe’ will probably feel like Agatha Christie’s detective stories without Miss Marple. What will Merkel’s European legacy be, and how long will it last? She has often been accused of dividing the European Union, especially in the context of the eurozone crisis, the migration crisis, and Berlin’s unwavering support for the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. However, this is not what Europeans say when they think of the German chancellor. As demonstrated by a survey the European Council on Foreign Relations conducted in 12 EU member states, they have significant expectations of Germany and confidence in German leadership. The poll shows that, despite Merkel’s often divisive policies, Europeans tend to see Berlin as an integrating force and a trustworthy, pro-European power. They regard Merkel as the EU’s unifier – an image that she would no doubt embrace.
Analena for president?
However, her successor should not be tempted to pursue a strategy of ‘more of the same’. In this sense it is interesting that Analena Baerbock, the candidat of the Green Party has got Merkel’s style of dealing with conflicts which was respected in the whole world, but always insists that she would change a lot of things. ECFR’s data suggest that a mere continuation of Merkelism would not consolidate the good reputation Germany has acquired in European societies. This is the paradox of Merkel’s legacy: Germany owes its success mostly to factors that are not sustainable and to circumstances that are now in the past. In other words, Berlin’s actions in recent decades have raised expectations about Germany’s potential to be the benevolent leader that a crisis-ridden EU needs so badly, struggling as it is to defend its values and find a place in a world of renewed great power competition. To fulfil this role, Berlin will have to reinvent itself. Most importantly, it will need to revise those principles of Merkelism that made Europeans place their hopes on Germany.