Europe seeks new leader as Merkel exits the political stage

Angela Merkel's departure from the political stage after 16 years as chancellor has not only ushered in a new era in Germany but also shakes up the power balance in the EU.

Macron, Merkel and Draghi
Christine Lagarde, Emmanuel Macron, Angela Merkel und Mario Draghi applaud a music performance at a ceremony for the changeover of the head of the European Central Bank in 2019. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Boris Roessler

Her successor-in-waiting to lead Europe’s biggest economy, Finance Minister Olaf Scholz, as well as France’s President Emmanuel Macron and Italy’s Prime Minister Mario Draghi have all been touted as candidates to take over Merkel’s mantle as the leader of Europe.

But analysts warn that none may be immediately capable of assuming the task, given the European Union’s myriad of unresolved challenges — ranging from an internal dispute over the rule of law to the risk of geopolitical marginalisation, to the after-shocks of Brexit.

Lauded for her steady hand in steering the bloc through crisis after crisis, Merkel, who will quit politics when Scholz is officially elected chancellor in December, is leaving the stage while still immensely popular at home and abroad.

During her 16 years in office, she has at times been vilified for stubbornly sticking to her plans despite her partners’ protests, while at others, praised for holding the line.

“Angela Merkel is perceived as one of the most significant politicians in a generation, as the de facto leader of the European Union and the ‘leader of a free world’,” wrote Sebastian Reiche of the IESE Business School in Spain.

In a recent survey of the think-tank European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), 41 percent of EU citizens said that if they could, they would vote for Merkel. Comparatively, only 14 percent picked Macron.

READ ALSO: ‘Eternal’ chancellor: Germany’s Merkel set to hand over power

‘Sovereign Europe’

Yet critics say Merkel’s “stability” politics of sitting out crises and prioritising economic interests even in dealings with Russia or China have only crimped European integration and fuelled inertia.

Her exit may well open the door for the other half of the European engine — Macron — to slide into the driver’s seat.

The stars appear to be aligning: France holds the EU’s presidency from January, and with a Social Democrat-led coalition arriving in Germany, even the age-old German adage of budgetary rigour appears to waver as Europe’s biggest economy seems bent to spend its way out of the pandemic.

Likewise on defence, Germany, once comfortably ensconced under the “US shield”, is no longer so sure after Donald Trump’s presidency forced the political classes in Berlin to bury their old certainties and begin a mindset shift.

Olaf Scholz
Olaf Scholz, Germany’s Chancellor-in-waiting, speaks at a meeting with the young socialists (Jusos) on Saturday, November 27th. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Frank Rumpenhorst

Illustrating the change, Scholz’s incoming coalition of his Social Democrats, ecologist Greens and liberal FDP declared in their agreement that it was their “task as an economically strong and populous country in the heart of Europe to enable, promote and advance this sovereign Europe”.

Merkel’s departure “can allow France’s vision of a powerful Europe to develop, it is an ambition that Macron has championed since his arrival in power,” said Alexandre Robinet-Borgomano of the Institut Montaigne.

“Leading the charge” for Merkel’s mantel is Macron, wrote Helen Thompson of Cambridge University, though his “self-proclaimed attempts to give the European Union an explicitly political purpose have been frustrated so far”.

READ ALSO: ‘France loves you’ – Macron hosts Merkel for farewell visit

‘Merkelism’ is out

Amid the changing of the guard in Berlin, Macron recently signed a new bilateral cooperation treaty with Draghi.

Even if the ambitious 43-year-old president has defended himself by saying that France is not seeking to replace French-German relations, the timing of the pact comes as the EU is realigning itself after Brexit.

The French leader however faces an election in 2022, with the far-right posing a challenge.

No matter the outcome, France could be tied up with domestic politics for a while, stifling its capacity to develop a grand vision for Europe.

Scholz, 63, an experienced politician who has served in two of Merkel’s cabinets, could seize the chance as Merkel’s heir.

But analysts warn that times have changed, and more “Merkelism” might not do for the new era.

Macron and Draghi
French president Emmanuel Macron hugs Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi following the signing of a new treaty on November 26th. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/AFP POOL/AP | Alberto Pizzoli

“The policy of remaining neutral and avoiding tough solutions to Europe’s predicaments does not seem to be a viable approach to the challenges ahead,” wrote Piotr Buras and Jana Puglierin of the ECFR.

“Merkelism is unlikely to outlive Merkel… because the EU will need a more visionary and courageous Germany to strengthen its foundations and defend its place in the world.”


The jury is still out on whether Scholz, who styled himself as a Merkel mimic — down to her rhombus hand gesture — during the German campaign, will step out of her shadow to take a more radical path.

With both key European players likely needing time for realities to shake down, one new pole of stability has emerged in the once debt-wracked south.


Dubbed “Super Mario” during his stint at the helm of the European Central Bank, Draghi has brought stability to a country that was once a byword for political upheavals and scandals.

Draghi “could fill the vacuum left by Angela Merkel as a consensus builder in the European Council,” Nicoletta Pirozzi of think-tank Istituto Affari Internazionali in Rome told AFP.

“Also, compared to Merkel’s cautious approach, he could inject a new dynamism in key sectors of European integration, from the reform of economic governance to foreign policy and defence, in cooperation with France and the new German government.”

But Pirozzi noted that much will hinge on whether the Italian leader, 74, does manage to successfully implement the EU’s economic recovery plan.

Italian prime minister Mario Draghi
Italy Prime Minister Mario Draghi holds a press conference with Angela Merkel on October 7th, 2021. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/LaPresse via ZUMA Press | Roberto Monaldo

Italy’s presidential election in early 2022 “could radically change the picture” as Draghi is also touted as “one of the most credible potential candidates” in that race.

Until a new leader emerges, some analysts see a sombre future for the bloc.

“Europe might be heading towards a period of uncertainty and potential weakness,” warned Reiche.

Likewise, Thompson was pessimistic.

“Hamstrung by the rivalry between America and China, and deeply divided internally, the European Union inhabits a world different from that of the years of Ms. Merkel’s ascendancy,” she wrote.

“The reality, starkly stated, is that neither the (new) German chancellor nor the French government can lead Europe. “And in the absence of leadership, Europe is headed for one thing — stasis.”

By Yacine Le Forestier

Member comments

  1. “Likewise on defence, Germany, once comfortably ensconced under the “US shield”, is no longer so sure after Donald Trump’s presidency forced the political classes in Berlin to bury their old certainties and begin a mindset shift.”

    It could help them if they actually paid the agreed to share.

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Why the Greens are the real winners of Germany’s state elections

German state elections don't tell us everything about the public mood, but the past few votes have revealed some pretty clear winners and losers. While support for the SPD is flagging, the Greens are growing in stature by the day, writes Brian Melican.

Why the Greens are the real winners of Germany's state elections

It’s one of the peculiarities of Germany’s federal system that we’re almost never more than six months away from an election being held somewhere. Alongside the national elections (Bundestagswahl) usually every four years, each of the 16 states also hold ballots (Landtagswahl) on varying cycles; then there are local and mayoral elections, too. As such, rolling campaigning and more-or-less continuous election analysis are a part of life here: “What does Election X say about Government Y?” is a question you will always hear being asked somewhere.

Nevertheless, regional elections have a habit of clustering – and generally come at points when national governments would rather not have people poring over electoral data. And this year, after barely six months in office, Olaf Scholz’ novel tri-partite traffic-light coalition has already been faced with three regional elections – in Saarland (27th March), last week in Schleswig-Holstein (8th May), and yesterday in North-Rhine Westphalia (15th May). On a regional level, the popularity of the Social Democrats (SPD), Greens and Free Democrats (FDP) has already been thoroughly tested. 

Understanding state elections

The key thing to remember about German regional elections are that they both are and aren’t about national politics. Firstly, here’s how they aren’t. At a basic level, these regional elections are simply about voters choosing a government to deal with state-level remits (mainly health, education, and housing). They will vote first and foremost on these issues.

Personality politics are also important: long-serving German state premiers frequently garner the unofficial honorific Landesvater or Landesmutter –  literally: ‘father/mother of the state’ – and benefit from high personal approval ratings, allowing them to withstand changes in mood at national level. So it is by no means infrequent for voters to return completely different parties in regional than at national elections. By way of example, while Olaf Scholz, SPD, remained a popular Landesvater figure in Hamburg, Merkel’s CDU still won more Hamburg votes at national elections.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: Why Sunday’s state parliament vote in NRW is important for German politics

Then again, regional elections also are about national politics. That’s because they never take place in a vacuum (except for in Bavaria, of course, where everyone always votes CSU). Even the most beloved of state premiers faces an uphill struggle if their party is currently making a hash of things in Berlin. What is more, the larger and the more representative the Bundesland, the more results of its elections can show swings in voter mood which may be of national relevance.

The Greens’ slow ascent from their mid-2000s funk to their current swagger began in Baden-Württemberg: winning control of this state populated by 11 million people and many of Germany’s top industrialists showed that voters trusted them to be part of a government. That set the ball rolling and by the time of last year’s national election, the Greens were already in power in half of federal states. Incidentally, it is often overlooked that state governments make up the Bundesrat, the second chamber of parliament, which can accept or refuse laws made by the Bundestag. So shifts in power here can be of national relevance.

This dichotomy has the predictable effect that, in the aftermath of every Landtagswahl, the losing parties usually claim that it was simply a regional ballot with nothing to say about national politics while the winning parties play up the significance at federal level.

Olaf Scholz and Thomas Kutschaty

Chancellor Olaf Scholz (SPD) congratulates Thomas Kutschaty, SPD candidate in North Rhine-Westphalia, after the party wins 26.7 percent of the vote. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Kay Nietfeld

An SPD disaster 

This is why it is very bad news for Olaf Scholz and the SPD that their only victory in spring 2022’s three Landtagswahlen was in dinky little Saarland, a state whose population is smaller than that of a major city like Cologne and whose local politics are so marked by rivalries and infighting as to have little-to-no relevance nationally. Despite winning an absolute majority in the regional parliament at Saarbrücken (a rare feat in proportional representation), there was no way the SPD could claim a national bearing – and, to its credit, didn’t try to do so either.

In Schleswig-Holstein, the SPD wasn’t expected to unseat the CDU’s Daniel Günther, a likeable and well-liked premier coming to the end of five years at the helm of a surprisingly successful Jamaica coalition with the Greens and the FDP. Here, too, the national relevance was relatively low: Schleswig-Holstein has only 3 million inhabitants and few large towns and cities. Nevertheless, losing over half its seats while the Greens and CDU gained by the same amount was not a good result for the SPD.

What was disastrous, however, was last night’s result in North-Rhine Westphalia. With a population the size of the neighbouring Netherlands (17 million) and everything from Germany’s largest urban conurbation down to isolated mountain regions, NRW is often considered a microcosm of the country as a whole. As something of a swing state, parties which succeed here often go on to win the next national election (if they aren’t already in government).


What is more, unlike in Schleswig-Holstein, NRW was the SDP’s to win. Until last year, its premier was the luckless Armin Laschet (remember him?), who plumbed popularity depths in his failed bid to become Chancellor. He then left a badly-damaged CDU-FDP administration to Hendrik Wüst, a successor whose profile, if he had one at all, was defined by various low-level corruption scandals (including a regrettable incident where he sold slots with the then-NRW premier, Jürgen Rüttgers, to high-paying commercial lobbyists…).

Hendrik Wüst (CDU)

Re-elected NRW state premier Hendrik Wüst (CDU) celebrates his victory. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Rolf Vennenbernd

Even if Wüst proved to be an unexpectedly good campaigner and the SPD’s Thomas Kutschaty remained oddly faceless, the fact that Olaf Scholz himself got involved and that the SPD still ended up with its worst showing in NRW ever is nothing less than a serious defeat for both the Chancellor and his party – one which, in my view, underlines how Scholz has not yet lived up to expectations.

Nevertheless, he is in luck. Firstly, the electoral cycle means that this upset is occurring at the beginning of his term; there will be time to recover. Secondly, although Wüst gets first crack at forming a government, the Greens are his only real potential partner – and will take a lot of courting. NRW Greens are on the more left-wing end of the spectrum and will play the field, potentially trying to usher in a mini traffic-light coalition in Düsseldorf if it looks feasible later.

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

Growing support for Greens

So after the post-Merkel rout, the CDU has scored an important and much-needed victory, but harnessing it to get momentum nationally may yet prove difficult. Indeed, it’s the Greens who have come out of the last two weekends with a new swing in their step. Following a disappointing national election last year, they have once again hit their stride, due in no small part to the Ukraine reminding voters of why renewable energy is important on the one hand and the impressive figures cut by Robert Habeck and Annalena Baerbock in government on the other.

For the FDP, things are not looking so good. Despite negotiating a disproportionately high amount of their manifesto into last year’s agreement, they are suffering the fate of many a junior coalition partner: a lack of profile. On strictly regional terms, they lost votes to the popular Daniel Günther in Schleswig-Holstein (perhaps unavoidably, despite a good record as part of his coalition) and to the not-yet-popular Hendrik Wüst (following lacklustre performance in government in Düsseldorf).

Greens party posters NRW

Posters featuring Greens candidate Mona Neubaur highlight the link between fossil fuels and Russia’s authoritarian leadership. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Roberto Pfeil

Worryingly for Christian Lindner, however, this may be harbinger of history repeating itself. Essentially, FDP voters tend to get enthusiastic for a business-friendly go-getter type who promises to lower taxes and slash regulation, only to later turn their back on him when, once part of a coalition government, he proves unable to deliver the small-state free-for-all promised. That’s what happened to Guido Westerwelle in the 2009-2013 administration, in any case.

There is, however, one bit of unadulterated good news for all parties and indeed our country as a whole: the AfD lost vote share everywhere. The populist outfit didn’t even make it into parliament in Schleswig-Holstein and only just scraped in in NRW. It would seem that, in times of crisis, voters don’t want to add to the list of potential disasters by putting populists anywhere near power. This is a hypothesis we’ll be able to test in just under six months’ time, by the way, when Lower-Saxony goes to the polls on 9th October.