Merkel’s political twilight sees Germany’s influence wane

As the chancellor’s final term ticks away, her ability to set the political agenda is diminishing fast

Guy Chazan in Berlin


Emmanuel Macron made a diplomatic overture last month that left many in Berlin speechless. Receiving Vladimir Putin at his summer retreat in Fort de Brégançon, the French president called for a new security architecture between the EU and Russia. Despite the “misunderstandings of the past decades”, he said Russia “is profoundly European . . . We believe in a Europe that stretches from Lisbon to Vladivostok”.

Diplomats in Berlin fumed. “Who gave him the mandate to negotiate a new European security architecture with Russia?” asked one official. “We’re quite happy with the one we have right now, and he shouldn’t be calling it into question.”

Days later, Mr Macron launched a new initiative on Ukraine, calling the first summit of the so-called Normandy Four — the leaders of Germany, France, Russia and Ukraine — since 2016. He insisted he was working in close co-ordination with Angela Merkel, the German chancellor. But the impression given was that he was muscling into an area of policy that has traditionally been Germany’s preserve. It was, after all, Ms Merkel who spearheaded western sanctions against Russia after its 2014 annexation of Crimea and brokered a ceasefire between government troops and Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine. “Macron is stealing Merkel’s show,” the Süddeutsche Zeitung daily commented.

For some in Berlin, the French leader’s gambit reflected a broader trend — Germany’s waning influence on the international stage. There was a sense that Paris had simply stepped into a diplomatic vacuum once occupied by Berlin. “Macron can only be this active because Germany has become so passive,” says Omid Nouripour, foreign affairs spokesman for Germany’s opposition Greens.

epa07781204 Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) and French President Emmanuel Macron (R) attend a joint press conference before the talks at the fort of Bregancon in France, 19 August 2019. President Putin pays a working visit to France at the invitation of French President. EPA-EFE/ALEXEI DRUZHININ / SPUTNIK / KREMLIN POOL MANDATORY CREDIT
Emmanuel Macron, right, hosted Russian premier Vladimir Putin at his summer retreat in Fort de Brégançon. The French president has called for a new security architecture between the EU and Russia © EPA-EFE

Ms Merkel, in her twilight as chancellor, embodies this perception of decline. As her last months in power tick away, her ability to set the political agenda appears to be diminishing fast.

Domestically, too, she is weaker. The coalition with the Social Democrats, which has ceded its status as Germany’s leading left-of-centre party to the Greens, is fragile. Her health has suddenly become an issue of public concern, following three — largely unexplained — trembling fits in the summer. With a recession looming, critics complain of a sense of drift and purposelessness, and a government that is out of ideas.

“The coalition is just too self-absorbed, focused more on the tensions between the partners than with the big challenges facing Germany,” says Steffen Kampeter, head of the BDA employers’ association and a former state secretary in the finance ministry. “There’s a tendency towards provincialism . . . and that means Germany is unable to play a role in Europe.”

It was all so different five years ago. Then, Ms Merkel was at the height of her powers. Germany’s economy was booming, with surging employment, healthy exports and a bumper budget surplus. Her deft stewardship had helped the eurozone withstand its worst-ever crisis. Germany and the US formed two pillars of a transatlantic alliance that seemed unbreakable.

Then things started to unravel. Her decision to keep Germany’s borders open in 2015 and the subsequent influx of more than 1m refugees exposed deep faultlines in the EU and turned German politics upside down. Her Christian Democratic Union bled support to the anti-immigration Alternative for Germany, which became the biggest opposition party in the Bundestag. After inconclusive parliamentary elections in 2017, she was forced to form a grand coalition with the SPD that, from its inception, has been plagued by internal strife. And the once robust German economy, buffeted by the US-China trade war and fears of a hard Brexit, is contracting.

Ms Merkel no longer dominates the German political landscape. Last year, she stepped aside as CDU leader after 18 years, and said she would exit politics once her fourth and final term as chancellor ends in 2021. All eyes have been on the party’s new leader, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, and her hapless attempts to establish herself as Ms Merkel’s heir.

epa07124883 Russian President Vladimir Putin (L), German Chancellor Angela Merkel (2-L), Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (2-R) and French President Emmanuel Macron (R), react after their press conference during the Syria summit in Istanbul, Turkey, 27 October 2018. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Russian President Vladimir Putin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and French President Emmanuel Macron met in Istanbul to plan a political resolution for the conflict in Syria. EPA-EFE/MAXIM SHIPENKOV / POOL
Angela Merkel with Mr Putin, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Mr Macron. The chancellor's multilateral approach has suffered in a political climate dominated by the likes of Erdogan, Putin and Trump © Maxim Shipenkov/EPA-EFE

“Merkel is too distracted with domestic problems — the instability of her grand coalition and the rumblings within her own party about the succession” to launch any big new foreign policy initiatives, says Mr Nouripour.

Ms Merkel’s personal approval rating remains surprisingly high. She is easily Germany’s most popular politician. But despite that, many crave a change.

“We live in an age when people want someone to give them direction, and they won’t get it from her,” says Andrea Römmele, professor for communication in politics at the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin. “I admire Merkel’s authenticity, her calmness and composure. But in many ways, Germany now needs a new political style.”

Nothing has damaged Germany’s confidence more than the constant attacks by Donald Trump, who has turned Berlin into his favourite punch bag. Ms Merkel has endured a torrent of abuse from the US president over everything from Germany’s weak defence spending to its huge current account surplus and reliance on Russian natural gas.

“The link to Washington was always critical to German foreign policy, and now it’s been severed,” says Ulrich Speck, senior visiting fellow at the German Marshall Fund in Berlin. “Merkel has been cut off by Trump and that leaves her in the dark.”

It is not just that relations with Washington are bad — Mr Trump has assailed all the values Ms Merkel holds dear. “She cares deeply about multilateral institutions, but how can they function properly in a world dominated by Trump, [Vladimir] Putin and [Recep Tayyip] Erdogan?” says the official. “She is all about forging alliances, and that is now harder to do than ever before.”

Satisfaction with German chancellor Angela Merkel

Germany is going through a difficult phase with another close ally, too — France. Mr Macron initially hoped Ms Merkel would join forces with him in a push to reform the EU and eurozone, and slow the rise of rightwing populism. But the chancellor, distracted by months of coalition building after the 2017 election, stayed silent.

“When Macron presented his reform proposals, Germany wasn’t even able to say whether they were good or bad — it didn’t say anything at all,” says Marco Buschmann, a senior MP for the opposition Free Democratic party. “Germany doesn’t even articulate its own interests any more.”

Yet teaming up with Mr Macron on a big reform drive would have been beyond Ms Merkel’s powers. The CDU’s conservative wing was already furious with her for pushing the party towards the centre — phasing out nuclear power, abolishing compulsory military service and keeping Germany’s borders open during the migration crisis.

She had “severely tested the patience of her party with her liberalism, and the price she paid was that she had much less freedom to act in other important areas”, Sigmar Gabriel, the former Social Democratic leader and deputy chancellor, recently told German TV.

The refugee crisis in particular took its toll. “You can see it really wore her out,” says one CDU MP. “Now she can’t seem to bestir herself to do anything.”

Frustrated by Germany’s passivity, Mr Macron has tended to go it alone.

epa07790591 German Chancellor Angela Merkel, center, talks to President of the European Council Donald Tusk, left, during a G7 coordination meeting with the Group of Seven European members at the Hotel du Palais in Biarritz, southwestern France, Saturday, Aug.24, 2019. Efforts to salvage consensus among the G-7 rich democracies frayed Saturday in the face of U.S. President Donald Trump's unpredictable America-first approach even before the official start of the summit in southern France. EPA-EFE/MARKUS SCHREIBER / POOL MAXPPP OUT
Ms Merkel with European Council president Donald Tusk at the G7 meeting in August. The summit in Biarritz saw the German chancellor take a backseat to Emmanuel Macron © Markus Schreiber/EPA-EFE

This new approach was clearly in evidence at last month’s G7 summit in Biarritz, where he posed as the world’s number one problem-solver, dedicated to tackling crises from Yemen and Libya to Iran and the Sahel.

Biarritz was not the kind of G7 meeting Ms Merkel is used to. “Before, they were all about patiently negotiating with like-minded leaders, something she’s very good at — but now it’s more like a prize fight,” says Josef Janning, senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin. “These days the G7 is about jockeying for position, preening and showing off. And that is not Merkel’s world.”

Mr Macron’s attempt to usurp Ms Merkel’s role as chief mediator in the Ukraine conflict was particularly galling. “She can’t approve of that, because Germany’s special relationship with Russia is one of the most important assets that she has as chancellor,” says Mr Janning. “Western leaders know we Germans can talk to the Russians in a way no one else can, not even Macron.”

Germany’s global heft has long been on the wane, say critics. Some blame foreign minister Heiko Maas, who they say lacks leadership qualities and a clarity of purpose. Under Mr Maas, German foreign policy has become more “dithering, vague and halfhearted”, says Mr Nouripour.

He compares Mr Maas to previous foreign ministers and the intense shuttle diplomacy they engaged in to solve global crises — Frank-Walter Steinmeier in Ukraine in 2014, Joschka Fischer in Israel and Palestine in 2001, and Hans-Dietrich Genscher throughout the cold war and in the run-up to German reunification. Mr Maas, he says, could have engaged much more in trying to end the war in Yemen and the crisis over Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

epa02121075 A handout picture released by the German Federal Government showing German Chancelllor Angela Merkel and her foreign politics advisor Christoph Heusgen chat during the flight from Lisbon to Rome, Italy, 17 April 2010. Merkel was forced to stop over in Lisbon on 16 April due to the volcanic ashes while on her flight back from the USA. Merkel and her delegation will head on to Bolzano in northern Italy by bus. EPA/GUIDO BERGMANN / HANDOUT EDITORIAL USE ONLY

Critics say the rot in German diplomacy set in when Christoph Heusgen, Ms Merkel's former foreign policy adviser, left the chancellory in 2017 © Guido Bergmann/EPA

Others say the rot in German diplomacy set in when Christoph Heusgen, who had served as Ms Merkel’s foreign policy adviser for 12 years, left the chancellery in 2017 to become Germany’s ambassador to the UN. Mr Heusgen played a central role in the Minsk peace process, which established a ceasefire in eastern Ukraine and is a “key part of Merkel’s legacy”, says Mr Speck. “The risk is that Macron and Trump will now take this policy over.”

There was consternation in Berlin when the US suggested that Russia should be readmitted into the G7 — a development that, if it ever came about, would mark a big defeat for Ms Merkel.

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It is not the case, though, that she has disengaged entirely from Ostpolitik. She was one of the first western leaders to host Volodymyr Zelensky after his surprise victory in the Ukrainian presidential election in April. Berlin was also the venue for a crucial meeting earlier this month between representatives of the “Normandy” powers — Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France — to prepare for the next four-way summit.

Yet in a rough transcript of a conversation between Mr Zelensky and Mr Trump released by the White House on September 25, the US president says Ms Merkel “doesn’t do anything” for Ukraine.

The German chancellor has thrown her weight behind other big diplomatic initiatives. She has been at the forefront of European efforts to ease poverty in Africa, and to reduce the instability and violence that have prompted hundreds of thousands to seek a better life in Europe. In May, she travelled to Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger to push the policy.

Ms Merkel has also floated the idea of hosting an international conference on Libya, which would be Germany’s first big diplomatic offensive since the Minsk peace process. The chancellor aims to act as an honest broker in a conflict that has destabilised the Sahel region, and has sought to win round Mr Macron and Mr Trump to her push for peace.

epa07850002 German Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer looks on her phone during the beginning of a cabinet meeting at the Chancellery in Berlin, Germany, 18 September 2019. The cabinet of the German government meets on a regular basis. EPA-EFE/CLEMENS BILAN
Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, the Christian Democratic Union leader, has struggled to establish herself as Ms Merkel's heir © Clemens Bilan/EPA

Also, Germany will hold the rotating presidency of the EU next year: that could be crowned by a big investment protection agreement between the Europeans and China, which has long been in the works.

But with the clock ticking, some say Ms Merkel will struggle to achieve anything lasting in her remaining 730 or so days in power, especially in 2021 — an election year — when there will be few opportunities for grand political gestures.

Already, says Mr Kampeter, the signs do not augur well. “Next year Germany will be in the driver’s seat on all the fundamental decisions in the EU, setting the agenda for the whole bloc,” he says. “And right now, it’s focused on marginal issues, like whether to ban plastic bags and oil-fired heating systems.”

But even her staunchest critics say Ms Merkel is no “lame duck”. The FDP’s Mr Buschmann says: “She is very power-conscious. You should never underestimate her.”

Climate: package shows coalition’s lack of ambition

epa07855525 People carry a globe with the iscription 'There is no planet B' during a demonstration as a part of the Fridays for Future global climate strike in Berlin, Germany, 20 September 2019. Millions of people around the world are taking part in protests demanding action on climate issues. The Global Strike For Climate is being held only days ahead of the scheduled United Nations Climate Change Summit in New York. EPA-EFE/HAYOUNG JEON
Critics of the German government's €54bn climate change package say it is emblematic of an administration that seems to lack ambition and drive © EPA-EFE

The overwhelming response to the €54bn package of measures to combat climate change, unveiled to much fanfare by Angela Merkel’s grand coalition last Friday, was a shrug of the shoulders.

As part of the package, which was designed to ensure Germany meets its target for cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, companies that produce and sell petrol, coal and heating oil will have to buy certificates to offset their carbon dioxide emissions. The carbon price underpinning the scheme will start at €10 in 2021 and rise to €35 by 2025.

That, says Ottmar Edenhofer, head of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, is “ridiculously low”, and would have no impact on consumer behaviour. He advocates an initial price of €50 a tonne, rising to €130 by 2030. Ms Merkel has countered that “politics is always what is possible”.

But critics say the climate package is emblematic of a government that has long seemed to lack ambition and drive. “The CDU and SPD never really came together,” says Marco Buschmann, an MP from the opposition Free Democratic party. “As a result, whatever they agree on always has to be the lowest common denominator.”

Business leaders have long accused the government of lacking creativity. “A lot of things it promised just fell by the wayside,” says Dieter Kempf, head of the BDI, Germany’s main business lobby. He cites artificial intelligence: ministers promised to invest €3bn in the sector but in the end earmarked “just €1bn of new funds”. “So far, the coalition has allocated too much money to wealth redistribution measures [at the expense of investment], and that is the wrong way to go,” he says.

There is also anger that ministers have failed to adjust to a looming recession and a darkening global environment. “When tax revenues fall, the labour market weakens and uncertainties over the US-China trade conflict and Brexit start to bite, you have to start thinking about what is important for Germany and not just stick your head in the sand,” says Steffen Kampeter, head of the employers’ association, the BDA.

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