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Merkel’s 4th Term: End of an Era?
On 26th March 2018 the Henry Jackson Society welcomed Ali Aslan, the host of a German talk-show, Quadriga on Deutsche Welle TV. He opened the floor with a stark picture of the German election: The refugee crisis, and in particular Merkel’s handling of it loomed over everything. This fact alone showed us that the right-wing insurgent party, Alternative for Deutschland, was coming of age in a country and political culture that isn’t used to consensus-breaking parties.
Mr. Aslan’s core argument was that with the early breakdown of the ‘Jamaica’ talks, and taking over 4 months to form a grand coalition Merkel was for the first time vulnerable, and widely disliked in political circles. Not just by the opposition Social Democrats but even by her own party, the Christian Democratic Union, and especially by the more conservative Christian Social Union. People have grown tired of her constructive ambiguity on important issues, like refugees, integration and border control. Safe to say, the Merkel era is drawing to a close.
Mr Aslan declared, “in the United States, presidents win elections by calling for change, in Germany you lose them by calling for it.” In a conservative country changes in the economy, social inequality and even getting the will to reform the wider E.U. is a difficult process. The recent automotive emissions scandal and the slow pace of digitalisation has taken a toll of the morale in industry, as Mr. Aslan put it, “Germany is a hardware nation, not a software one.” And Germany’s history in Europe has meant its military is poorly equipped for the kind of burden carrying needed for a leader of Europe, despite the country being one of the biggest exporters of hi-tech weapons.
Poor international leadership in the White House, and weak leadership in France and Brexit has meant Germany is largely the leader by default not by design. Its leadership in Europe is hotly debated internationally, but rarely discussed in Germany. But this could change. The Franco-German alliance, the bedrock of European political power, is entering a new phase: Germany is no longer a steady leader insulated from populism, with France playing a secondary role. Macron, unlike Hollande, Sarkozy or Chirac, isn’t waiting to take ques from Merkel’s Berlin on what reforms are needed or the pace of them.
Turning to what Merkel’s legacy would have looked like before 2015, Mr Aslan argued that would have looked sparse. When she opened the borders go refugees in 2015 and passed same-sex marriage in 2017, she surprised everyone, most of all Mr Aslan himself. People began to ask, what is the difference between the CDU and the SPD or the Greens? This fermented a conservative backlash from the right-wing of her own party and gave political space for the AfD. She is only now beginning to promote figures in her party, most of which are more right-wing than her.
Mr. Aslan noted too that the AfD is having an effect on political language, phrases and statements, like asking whether Islam is compatible with Germany, or if shooting illegal migrants at the border might stem the flow would have ruined careers five or ten years ago, now they don’t. For Mr. Aslan, change will happen in Germany whether Merkel likes it or not now; this could be that her party shifts to the right, or growing public anger at refugee integration management or seeing the Franco-German alliance on a more equal footing. Merkel’s 4th term is, for Mr. Aslan, an end of an era, but a picture hasn’t emerged what will replace it yet.