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What next for Europe? 3 questions for a post-Merkel Brussels

When Germany goes to the polls on 26 September, leaders throughout the EU will be closely watching who is set to replace Angela Merkel after a 16 year period in which the German Chancellor left her mark in Brussels and shaped Europe’s response to some of its greatest crises – from the Global Financial Crisis, the Eurozone Crisis and the Migration Crisis, to the current COVID-19 pandemic. So we ask, what’s next for Europe? How can Ms Merkel’s departure and the arrival of a new Chancellor – whichever party they may be from – impact the EU in the coming years.

1. A space for a new leader to emerge?

Undoubtedly, Angela Merkel was a respected politician in Brussels and beyond. Someone that could orchestrate the big compromises Europe needed and is accustomed to – it is certain that she will be missed once she has left the Chancellor office.

Germany had 16 years to grow accustomed to Merkel’s leadership – and it did remarkably well, given the considerable number of crises that have hit Germany and the rest of Europe during this period.  However, this time of relative political stability may come to an end now. With shifting power dynamics between the different political parties and the Greens being a favourite especially among the younger generations, the political agenda of the next German Chancellor is likely to change.

Merkel’s successor will be confronted with a number of challenges both on national and European level. Becoming the next German Chancellor is not only a matter of serving national interests, but also of juggling the many roles Merkel used to play on the international stage – everything under intense scrutiny of the European, if not global, eye. Depending on how successful the new Chancellor will be in accomplishing the former, Germany might have to reconsider its dominance in EU politics at least while adjusting to a new political course. Annalena Baerbock of the Greens, Merkel’s party colleague Armin Laschet, or Social Democrat Olaf Scholz: whoever will follow in Merkel’s wide footsteps has to prove themself as a worthy replacement to gain back the undisputable credibility that Ms Merkel had built over many years of meetings at the European Council and international fora.

A space for a new leader to emerge? Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron.

A space for a new leader to emerge? Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron (Source: © Kremlin 2019 / CC BY 4.0)

In the short-term at least there could be a leadership vacuum in Brussels. Especially in the early days of the new German government, this is a potential opportunity for other established leaders like Emmanuel Macron of France, or Mario Draghi of Italy to steer the European agenda more – or for a new leader to emerge. As northern Europe felt often quite well represented on many issues under the leadership of Angela Merkel, they might feel they need to champion their own voice more once again, potentially an opportunity for Mark Rutte (NL) or even Sanna Marin (FI) to step in.

2. A new dynamic in the Franco-German alliance?

The Franco-German alliance is often mentioned when speaking about European politics, but does it really matter that much? In short, yes. At both political and policy level when these two countries agree on a way forward, there are good chances that other Member States will follow – they in essence bring together the North and the South.

Some exciting times are ahead for this alliance however, as one of its two leaders will change by the end of the year, and following elections in France in Spring 2022, potentially even both. A Green German Chancellor could even mean that none of the Franco-German leaders will come from the traditional centre-right (EPP) and centre-left (S&D) political groups in the European Parliament. That could reverberate throughout virtually all policy areas and would be a first in history. In addition, it would mean that European Commission President von der Leyen is no longer from the same party as the German Chancellor, potentially diminishing German influence over the EC on some topics. On the other hand, a CDU Chancellor could re-energise the relationship between Germany and France. Mr Laschet often speaks of reactivating this alliance and has even sometimes criticised Ms Merkel for not doing it enough.

One has to take into account that Mr Macron will be in campaign mode from 2022 so this could also dampen leadership in the alliance at EU level. So, whatever happens at the elections in both Germany and France, the alliance will see an animated time ahead.

icon image: Post-Merkel Brussels

3. A new approach to European competitors and partners?

‘I seek cooperation rather than confrontation’. This quote by Merkel summarises her leadership style as well as her approach to both national and European political discussions, which is based on diplomacy rather than skirmishes, lives on dialogue instead of silence, and seeks to avoid collisions. It made Merkel an expert in handling the unpredictable, albeit often with a barely detectable hint of disapproval. On the other hand, though, this leadership approach can come at the cost of being accused to being too tolerable towards ‘the intolerable’. Some have criticised Merkel’s effort to agree on an investment agreement with China over lack of labour and human rights safeguards and did not like her insistence that Nordstream II is not a political project and is therefore separate from EU-Russia relations. Her openness to Turkey was also often criticised.

Depending on how confrontational the next German Chancellor will be, a different leadership style might well alter previous relationships between Germany and the EU, as well as the EU and the rest of the world. This also applies to EU partners like the US or the UK. During Brexit negotiations, Merkel was seen as forgiving and calming the hawkish. Will the new Chancellor be as tolerant towards the UK? On the US side, while she always underlined the importance of the EU-US partnership, she was never afraid to look East as the above developments on China and Russia show. The Greens could be much more hawkish towards China and aim to decrease Europe’s dependence on the US at the same time, something that could strengthen the strategic autonomy agenda. One thing is certain, the post-Merkel era will play an important role in determining the bloc’s new course of action.  

Alexander Tempel advises clients on sustainable finance, banking regulation and economic governance. Before joining FleishmanHillard, he worked in the Cabinet of Climate Action and Energy Commissioner Arias Cañete. He also worked for the Federation of German Industries in Brussels and Mercedes-Benz in Tokyo, Japan. Alexander holds an MSc in EU Politics from the London School of Economics. He is a German and Spanish national who also speaks English and French fluently.

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