As Merkel travels abroad, can she still hold power as a world leader?

As Merkel travels abroad, can she still hold power as a world leader?
Merkel arriving in Kiev on Thursday. Photo: DPA
Angela Merkel appeared relaxed as she nibbled on bread and salt presented to her when she arrived in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev on Thursday. But after she revealed her exit strategy, has she lost power?

The trip is Merkel’s first abroad since she made the shock announcement on Monday that she plans to step down as party leader of the Christian Democrats (CDU) in December and as chancellor when her term ends in 2021.

There has been a mixed reaction to her plans to leave, with many people respecting her for being open and honest, while critics say she’s clinging onto power by remaining chancellor after giving up her spot as head of the party.

As she gets on with the job, she is bound to be received differently across Europe and the world. It begs the question: will her standing in international politics suffer?

The chancellor herself said 'no' to this question earlier this week at the Africa Summit in Berlin. “I believe that nothing will change in the negotiating position in international negotiations,” she said. 

However, there is some debate on this issue.

Jörg Forbrig, senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund and a political commentator, said Merkel is inevitably weakened by her new position. 

“Whatever she still wants to change on the European level will obviously run into the problem that she has a limited amount of time left,” he said.

Forbrig said heads of state who don't agree with her stance, for example, might use tactics such as stalling to try and wait for a new chancellor who might be more favourable to their point of view.

“The easiest strategy for countries will be to try and sit it out or postpone decisions, in the hope that after Merkel there will be another German chancellor who is an easier negotiating partner,” he said.

“That will make it difficult to get anything moving on the European level.”

Forbrig added that it wasn’t good news for Germany or Merkel. “To many she will appear as a damaged German leader with a sell by date that will likely come up sooner than the three years she has left in office,” he said.

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

‘Paralyzed chancellor’

Merkel’s one-day visit to Ukraine was taking place mainly to discuss the peace process in the east of the country as well as the controversial expansion of a Russian gas pipe line, called Nord Stream 2, reported AFP.

It was her first visit to the country since the signing of the Minsk accord in early 2015, which has so far failed to achieve its aim of bringing peace to eastern Ukraine.

Laying flowers at a memorial commemorating victims of mass protests in Ukraine. Photo: DPA

Merkel is due to visit Warsaw in Poland on Friday.

When it comes to countries across Europe, like Ukraine and Poland, Forbrig said authorities “might be quite worried” about Merkel not being “as influential as she has been for many years”.

“In some countries there will be concern about a German government or a chancellor that’s been paralyzed as it were,” he added.

Some heads of state will be happy to get rid of Merkel. Europe's far-right is already celebrating, DPA reported on Thursday.

Italy's right-wing populist interior minister Matteo Salvini made sneering remarks about the poor performance of the coalition parties in Hesse. “Arrivederci Merkel,” he said.

SEE ALSO: Who is leading the race against Merkel?

in  Budapest, Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban, who Merkel has previously clashed with over immigration issues, will also be happy to see the back of Merkel.

“She hasn’t spared criticism in his direction, so Orban may well be looking forward to the time after Merkel and hoping for a better European partner in Berlin,” said Forbrig.

Others might miss Merkel's calm hand in stormy times. The conservative head of the EU Commission Jean-Claude Juncker said Merkel would remain one of his key contacts after her exit. 

“Merkel and Germany remain an influential player in the European project – and beyond,” he said.

And EU Commissioner Günther Oettinger (CDU) said: “In Brussels we want the chancellor to bring in her three years”, signalling he’d like to see Merkel remain in office until 2021.

For French President Emmanuel Macron, things could now become more difficult with a weakened Merkel.

Merkel has always worked closely with her French colleagues in Europe, however recently she hasn’t been so involved in reform processes, mostly because of internal government problems. 

SEE ALSO: 'A hole she leaves': How the world is reacting to Merkel's planned departure

The US government under Donald Trump is likely to be observing what Merkel's announcement means for Europe, and if it weakens the continent. 

Meanwhile, Russia is also interested in a weaker EU, even though Merkel is a reliable contact for Vladimir Putin.

The chancellor is also an important head of state in the EU for the Chinese leadership, but Beijing is primarily interested in Western technology, with or without Merkel, DPA reported.

All eyes on Germany

Forbig said Merkel had “earned a lot of credit” for herself, and for Germany globally due to “having a steady hand, being principled and reliable”. That is despite decisions that have polarized people, such as the move to keep the German border open during the refugee crisis in 2015.

Merkel has made a huge impact on the international stage, so the world will be watching closely to see who could replace her.

SEE ALSO: A tough blow for Europe: Merkel's move poses problems for the EU

“Whoever is being elected to the helm of the Christian Democratic Union has a very good chance of becoming chancellor of Germany,” said Forbrig. “For that reason the party conference will be watched closely.”

But Forbrig argued that a wider interest in Germany has been developing in recent years, and that was evident in the amount of coverage received abroad during regional elections, such as in Bavaria and Hesse.

“For Germany that level of detail and attention wasn't there previously,” he said.

“There is a lot more attention to the inner workings of democracy and the party system, than ever before.”

But why? According to Forbrig it’s “an expression of how many people and countries see how important Germany has become”.

So Germany is clearly under the spotlight of Europe and the world. All eyes will be on Merkel during her final weeks as head of the party, as well as on the conference on December 7-8th where the new CDU chairperson will be revealed.

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