After Angela Merkel’s re-election as chancellor for the fourth time, Dara Keenan asks what is next for the leader of Germany.
In 12 years, Merkel has met with many challenges. One of her first was to guide Germany through a financial crisis that spelled the end for many other European economies. Instead Germany triumphed, introducing economic stimulus packages and cutting workers’ hours. She combatted growing parental poverty by expanding maternity pay, and growing inequality by introducing a new minimum wage of €8.50 an hour. While both were pushed for by her counterparts in parliament historically, her ability to finally get them through parliament gained her much support. Finally, in true German style, she faced the Eurozone crisis by enforcing strict fiscal policy on unruly states like Greece, bringing a degree of stability that won her many fans domestically if not across the continent.
All of these challenges made Merkel a leader, both at home and in Europe. Other influential EU members saw a growth in discontent and Euroscepticism, with the growth of Front National in France and UKIP in Britain. However the German people stood steadfast behind their leader, and trusted her to guide them on the international stage. But now she faces her greatest challenge. The stability that allows her to demand such authority and respect is under threat, as the far right nationalism that many believed could never return to mainstream German politics has reared its head again.
Challenges made Merkel a leader
Alternativ für Deutschland (AfD), the far right, anti-immigration and strongly nationalist German party has won 12.6% of the popular vote, making them the third largest party in parliament. It shows a growing discontent with some of Merkel’s policies, namely her refugee policy, and also a growing concern at the influence of the EU and the power of the euro. They risk disrupting the very fibre of Merkel’s authority as the stable, unquestionable leader of Germany and the European Union that could potentially cause her downfall in the fashion of David Cameron and Francois Hollande.
On the other hand, Merkel could come out of this stronger than ever. She is already making moves to form a new coalition in parliament between her own Christian Democrats (CDU), the Free Democrats (FDP) and the Greens. Such a coalition would not only ensure she stays on as chancellor, but would also place the second largest party in Germany, the Social Democrats (SPD) as the largest opposition party, diminishing the influence of the AfD. It also forces Merkel to confront the long needed EU reforms that people are now demanding. If she wants to save the euro she must make concessions on her refugee policy, which many of her own people no longer find acceptable. She may be unlikely to budge on her belief that taking in over 1 million refugees was the right thing to do. Nevertheless, she must now focus on the economic and social fears that certain Germans have, potentially through greater social welfare protections and greater work to integrate communities, migrant and German.
She may be unlikely to budge on her belief that taking in over 1 million refugees was the right thing to do
AfD will also affect how Merkel engages with Brexit, stopping her from taking a hard stance on this attempted departure from the Union. This is because a sizeable portion of the parliament now sympathise with the British cause. If Merkel can accept that, and work within those confines and still show the stability she did with the Eurozone crisis, it may stand in her stead. A tolerance of those dissenting views may serve to bring those who left her back into the fold, and the calm assuredness that has served her so well before may pay dividends yet again.
On the international stage, Merkel may find that her dealing with AfD can help her with an even greater challenge. Her handling of Vladimir Putin has been the subject of great scrutiny in recent times with regards to the Crimean crisis. With the emergence of Donald Trump, she is now divided between the two, trying to find a balance between the two competing powers. In a world where two of the most influential global leaders divide their people and suppress dissenting political views, she can distinguish herself as a true global leader, not just of her supporters but of everyone, by accepting the views of those around her and working with them to achieve a greater aim. If she can do that, she may find herself at the centre of a different Germany and Europe than she envisioned, but one that may stand the test of time. In such turbulent times, she may find herself as a source of stability once again. The next four years are the most important in Merkel’s career. She has led Germany, and she has led Europe. Now she could lead the world.