A ‘hole she leaves’: How the world’s reacting to Merkel’s planned departure

For 13 years Angela Merkel has been a cool head at summits and a powerful broker in troubled Europe, but analysts say the countdown until her announced departure could leave her an international lame duck.

A 'hole she leaves': How the world's reacting to Merkel's planned departure
Merkel at a 'Compact with Africa' conference Tuesday in Berlin. Photo: DPA

When Donald Trump became US president, liberal commentators turned to the German chancellor as a potential new “leader of the free world” — a label she swiftly dismissed as “absurd”.

Her moderate, consensus-seeking approach and staunch defence of the multilateral world order have made Merkel a counterpoint to Trump's “America First” isolationism at international meetings.

But political analysts say it's hard to predict what impact the exit of the world's most powerful woman, now down in the calendar for 2021, will have on global affairs.

Cas Mudde, a politics professor at the University of Georgia in the United States, said that whoever takes over at the head of Europe's biggest economy will struggle to wield the same international clout.

“That is the hole she leaves — that of senior political leader within Western democracies,” he told AFP.

Already weakened in domestic politics, he predicted that setting a clock will “further erode her national and international power, which remains, however, significant.”

SEE ALSO: 'End of an era': What you need to know about Merkel's planned departure

Farewell, queen of Europe

Germany has trod cautiously on the global stage since World War II, wary of throwing its might around for fear of spooking neighbours.

But within Europe Merkel has carved out an influential role as a broker, not least in the 2010-2015 Greek economic crisis and in leading the bloc's response to Russia's annexation of Crimea in 2014.

With Europe already badly divided by Brexit and a wave of migrant arrivals, officials and analysts in Brussels fear her announcement spells yet more uncertainty for the EU.

The Capital Economics consultancy said her announcement was bad timing given the major row that has just broken out over Italy's big-spending budget.

“The eurozone needs a safe pair of hands more than ever and Mrs Merkel has  been key to brokering compromises in the past,” it said in a briefing note.

“Her weakened position may mean that an agreement over Italy's budget will take longer to reach, raising the threat of contagion to other markets.”

French President Emmanuel Macron has meanwhile worked hard to win Merkel's support for a profound shake-up of the EU.

“Lots of the president's initiatives would not have seen the light of day of if it wasn't for strong German support,” France's Europe Minister Nathalie Loiseau told AFP, naming closer defence ties as an example.

But Merkel's support for Macron's ambitious institutional change was already lukewarm and is now in further doubt, with pro-EU commentator Gideon Rachman writing in the Financial Times that her announcement was “bad news” for the reforms.

Some analysts suggest Merkel's clout in general in Europe, where she has notably pushed for close ties with post-Brexit Britain, will take an immediate hit.

“Nobody is going to listen to her anymore in Europe. She has taken herself immediately out of the game,” said Sebastien Maillard, director of the Jacques
Delors Institute think-tank.

Yet Nils Diederich, a political scientist at the Free University of Berlin, predicted she will continue to act as a moderator in tense EU disputes, like those it faces with Italy and Hungary.

“In recent months it's become obvious that (European affairs) represent her
primary interests. She is Germany's real foreign minister,” he told AFP.

Step forward, Macron?

Coming a day after Brazil elected a far-right president and with populists on the march across Europe and beyond, Merkel's announcement also signals the decline of a leading voice against nationalism.

Some predict her successor at the helm of the conservative CDU party will shift further right in response to the rising far-right AfD party in Germany – a phenomenon spurred in large part by Merkel's 2015 welcome of more than a million refugees.

Mudde, who studies populism on both sides of the Atlantic, said however that Macron and Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had long since taken over as the world's leading defenders of liberal values.

“Merkel has been on her way out for a long time,” Mudde told AFP. “I think Macron has become a much more vocal opponent of nationalism than Merkel,” he added.

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Sleep, seaside, potato soup: What will Merkel do next?

 After 16 years in charge of Europe's biggest economy, the first thing Angela Merkel wants to do when she retires from politics is take "a little nap". But what about after that?

Outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel briefly closes her eyes and smiles at a 2018 press conference in Berlin.
Outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel briefly closes her eyes at a 2018 press conference in Berlin. Aside from plans to take "a little nap" after retiring this week, she hasn't given much away about what she might do next. Tobias SCHWARZ / AFP

The veteran chancellor has been tight-lipped about what she will do after handing over the reins to her successor Olaf Scholz on December 8th.

During her four terms in office, 67-year-old Merkel was often described as the most powerful woman in the world — but she hinted recently that she will not miss being in charge.

“I will understand very quickly that all this is now someone else’s responsibility. And I think I’m going to like that situation a lot,” she said during a trip to Washington this summer.

Famous for her stamina and her ability to remain fresh after all-night meetings, Merkel once said she can store sleep like a camel stores water.

But when asked about her retirement in Washington, she replied: “Maybe I’ll try to read something, then my eyes will start to close because I’m tired, so I’ll take a little nap, and then we’ll see where I show up.”

READ ALSO: ‘Eternal’ chancellor: Germany’s Merkel to hand over power
READ ALSO: The Merkel-Raute: How a hand gesture became a brand

‘See what happens’
First elected as an MP in 1990, just after German reunification, Merkel recently suggested she had never had time to stop and reflect on what else she might like to do.

“I have never had a normal working day and… I have naturally stopped asking myself what interests me most outside politics,” she told an audience during a joint interview with Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

“As I have reached the age of 67, I don’t have an infinite amount of time left. This means that I want to think carefully about what I want to do in the next phase of my life,” she said.

“Do I want to write, do I want to speak, do I want to go hiking, do I want to stay at home, do I want to see the world? I’ve decided to just do nothing to begin with and see what happens.”

Merkel’s predecessors have not stayed quiet for long. Helmut Schmidt, who left the chancellery in 1982, became co-editor of the weekly newspaper Die Zeit and a popular commentator on political life.

Helmut Kohl set up his own consultancy firm and Gerhard Schroeder became a lobbyist, taking a controversial position as chairman of the board of the Russian oil giant Rosneft.

German writer David Safier has imagined a more eccentric future for Merkel, penning a crime novel called Miss Merkel: Mord in der Uckermark  that sees her tempted out of retirement to investigate a mysterious murder.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel forms her trademark hand gesture, the so-called “Merkel-Raute” (known in English as the Merkel rhombus, Merkel diamond or Triangle of Power). (Photo by Tobias SCHWARZ / AFP)

Planting vegetables
Merkel may wish to spend more time with her husband Joachim Sauer in Hohenwalde, near Templin in the former East Germany where she grew up, and where she has a holiday home that she retreats to when she’s weary.

Among the leisure activities she may undertake there is vegetable, and especially, potato planting, something that she once told Bunte magazine in an interview in 2013 that she enjoyed doing.

She is also known to be a fan of the volcanic island of D’Ischia, especially the remote seaside village of Sant’Angelo.

Merkel was captured on a smartphone video this week browsing the footwear in a Berlin sportswear store, leading to speculation that she may be planning something active.

Or the former scientist could embark on a speaking tour of the countless universities from Seoul to Tel Aviv that have awarded her honorary doctorates.

Merkel is set to receive a monthly pension of around 15,000 euros ($16,900) in her retirement, according to a calculation by the German Taxpayers’ Association.

But she has never been one for lavish spending, living in a fourth-floor apartment in Berlin and often doing her own grocery shopping.

In 2014, she even took Chinese Premier Li Keqiang to her favourite supermarket in Berlin after a bilateral meeting.

So perhaps she will simply spend some quiet nights in sipping her beloved white wine and whipping up the dish she once declared as her favourite, a “really good potato soup”.