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

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?

As Merkel travels abroad, can she still hold power as a world leader?
Merkel arriving in Kiev on Thursday. Photo: DPA

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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Can German Chancellor Scholz create a Merkel-like buzz at the G7 in Bavaria?

The last time Germany hosted a G7 summit, then-chancellor Angela Merkel produced a series of viral images with Barack Obama, clinking giant mugs in a traditional Bavarian beer garden and communing against a verdant Alpine backdrop.

Can German Chancellor Scholz create a Merkel-like buzz at the G7 in Bavaria?

Her successor Olaf Scholz, hobbled in domestic opinion polls and of modest global stature, may struggle to match that convivial atmosphere when leaders gather again from Sunday.

The centrist Scholz, 64, assumed the presidency of the Group of Seven rich countries in January, just a month after taking office in Berlin.

Since then his handling of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, soaring inflation and energy supply complications have put his government to the test while sending his approval ratings plunging.

READ ALSO: Opinion – Scholz is already out of step at Germany – it’s time for a change of course

Scholz told parliament on Wednesday he was ready to seize the three days of talks at the Elmau Castle mountain resort – the same remote, picturesque venue Merkel chose in 2015 – to burnish Germany’s global image and the standing of the West.

“In Europe’s biggest security crisis for decades, Germany as the economically strongest and most populous country in the EU is assuming special responsibility – and not just for its own security but also for the security of its allies,” he said.

A series of summits in the coming days must show “that G7, EU and NATO are as united as ever” and that the “democracies of the world are standing together in the fight against (Russian President Vladimir) Putin’s imperialism,” Scholz said.

READ ALSO: Germany tightens border controls ahead of G7 summit

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz arrives at the EU summit in Brussels on June 23rd.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz arrives at the EU summit in Brussels on June 23rd 2022. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/AP | Olivier Matthys

‘Merkel tradition’

Joachim Trebbe, a professor of political communication at Berlin’s Free University, said Scholz had a “huge opportunity” with the G7 to dispel any doubts about his leadership skills or resolve against the Russian president.

“At the start of his term and even when the war began, Scholz was quite reserved – perhaps a little bit in the tradition of Ms Merkel,” a
still-popular conservative the Social Democratic chancellor has sought to emulate, Trebbe said.

She also “tended to manage crises and didn’t pay much attention to informing the media at every step”.

Former US President Barack Obama and ex-German Chancellor Angela Merkel sit during a concert visit in Elmau (Bavaria) in June 2015 as part of the G7 summit.

Former US President Barack Obama and ex-German Chancellor Angela Merkel at a concert visit in Elmau (Bavaria) in June 2015 during the G7 summit. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Karl-Josef Hildenbrand

After accusations of foot-dragging, Scholz’s attempts at a reset were on display during a long-delayed visit to Kyiv last week, joined by the leaders of France, Italy and Romania.

A journalist from the daily Süddeutsche Zeitung travelling with the chancellor noted that he had a tendency to make gaffes under pressure – like “an old tap that either releases ice-cold or boiling water”.


His trouble finding the middle ground had led him to exercise too much caution when it came to sending weapons to Ukraine, or too little, as when on a visit to Lithuania this month he significantly overstated German arms deliveries.   

The chancellor, whose sometimes robotic style has earned him the nickname Scholzomat, has also found himself outflanked in his own unwieldy ruling coalition of his Social Democrats (SPD), ecologist Greens and liberal Free Democrats.

A poll this week showed that the Greens – with popular Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock and Economy Minister Robert Habeck, both credited with clearer messaging on Ukraine — were leading the SPD in voter intentions for the first time since July 2021.

Both parties, however, are currently trailing the conservative opposition, which has relentlessly criticised Scholz’s Ukraine and energy policies as too timid.

READ ALSO: Why has Germany been so slow to deliver weapons to Ukraine?

Trebbe said that initiatives at the G7 bearing Scholz’s imprint on issues including future political and economic support for Ukraine, climate
protection and strengthening democracies worldwide were crucial if he hoped to gain political tailwinds from the summit.

But he said the gathering was nearly as much about generating images, such as the instant meme of Merkel, arms outstretched, explaining her world view to a nonchalant Obama, draped in repose on a wooden bench.

“That’s where symbols of unity, common strategy and strong leadership are created,” Trebbe said.

“I’m pretty sure Scholz has a team of professionals ready to take full advantage of that aspect of the summit.”

By Deborah COLE