The most famous geopolitical cartoon the London weekly Punch ever published was called “Dropping the pilot,” showing a weary Otto von Bismarck coming down the gangplank of a ship called Germany in 1890 after 28 years as chancellor. Angela Merkel has done only 13 years as her nation’s leader, though see seems like an institution. Now she is stepping down as leader of her Christian Democratic Party.
Her departure marks a turning point in German and European history. She stays on as chancellor until the end of her term in 2021, and there has been talk in Brussels and Berlin of her moving to be president of the European Commission—the executive bureaucracy of the European Union, or the European Council on which sit all the heads of Europe’s government, soon to be minus Britain.
The German horse cannot be ridden by two masters, and once her successor is installed in December, Merkel’s influence and authority will seep away. Her departure leaves Emmanuel Macron, 24 years her junior, as the main flag carrier for European integration and liberal values. In Italy and most of Eastern Europe, there are populist, xenophobic, and sometimes near anti-Semitic parties in power. Britain is on the way out. Spain has a social democratic prime minister, Pedro Sanchez, but he only has a quarter of the seats in the Cortes Generales and relies on shaky framework of support to stay in government.
Merkel’s departure was already written. There seems to be an iron law that ten years is enough at the top of a modern European nation. Margaret Thatcher appeared utterly dominant a decade after her 1979 election triumph. But a year later, she was gone. General Charles de Gaulle dominated French politics from 1958 to 1968 and then suddenly in 1969, he was out. When Spain’s Felipe Gonzalez or Merkel’s predecessor, Helmut Kohl, sought to extend their rule into a second decade, suddenly everything turned sour, opening the door to their opponents winning power.
All of the big party formations of post-1945 Europe have found 21st-century politics difficult. The French and Italian socialist parties are all but dead. The Swedish social democratic party has lost its decades-long dominance. Nationalist populist parties rule in eastern EU member-states. The French, Spanish, and Italian center-right parties are down, and now the same is happening to both social and Christian democrats in Germany.
Sunday’s regional parliament elections in Hesse, the German region around Frankfurt, was as bad for the social democrats as for Merkel. The center-right and the social democratic SPD lost badly in Bavaria in September and it is far from clear the GroKo (GrosseKoalition, or Grand Coalition) can survive Merkel’s departure.
Many observers believe that populist, nationalist, anti-immigrant parties are conquering Europe. But while the Swedish, German, Italian, and Austrian xenophobic nationalists are certainly doing well, so are the Greens, as well as the far-left like Die Linke in Germany, Podemos in Spain, Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s leftist gathering in France, or Syriza in Greece.
Europe will face patchwork politics rather like Switzerland over the next period as the era of hegemonic one-party rule fades into the past. Populism comes in many forms, not just right-wing varieties.
The proximate cause for Merkel’s downfall was the decision three summers ago to open German borders to a million refugees and economic migrants fleeing destroyed states in Iraq, Libya, and Syria, and Islamist fundamentalists in sub-Saharan Africa. In the summer of 2015, demonstrators in southern Europe painted Hitler moustaches onto posters of Merkel’s face as they protested the cruel treatment of Greece, Portugal, and Spain by the ruthless application of the economic ideology of fiscal austerity imposed by Berlin and its helpmates in the Netherlands, Finland, and other governments where Keynes and counter-cyclical policy are taboo.
Overnight, Merkel became the darling of liberal, generous Europe and the posters with the Hitler moustache on her upper lip disappeared. But she had not consulted with neighboring governments and expected them to take a share of Arab and African refugees and migrants.
The backlash was inevitable in Hungary and Poland. Germany and the Alternative für Deutschland turned from an anti-Euro party into a fully-fledged racist anti-immigrant party that has stolen CDU votes. Today, the number of refugees and immigrants from Arab and African countries is going down and many are being returned or prevented from arriving, but the powerful images of a million or more Muslim, not-European arrivals on mainland Europe resonates and has helped boost the fortunes of the populist right.
In the Brexit campaign of 2016, the most powerful poster was a picture of snaking queues of dark-skinned hooded immigrants winding down a Balkan path. They were not heading for Britain, but as with Donald Trump and his mobilization of the American military against the columns of South Americans heading for the Mexican border, mass immigrant movement is now toxic for all decent politicians and is used by rightist populists like Italy’s Matteo Salvini, France’s Marine le Pen, Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, and Britain’s Nigel Farage, as well as by Trump.
Germany has been the stable center of Europe since Merkel took over as chancellor in 2005. She told friends she was pretty much a social democrat and there was little in her policy at home or internationally that differed from her predecessor, Gerhard Schröder. German defense spending and the strength of the German military got steadily weaker while exports of German auto grew and grew. She sat on a huge budget surplus and refused to drop conservative economic policy and boost job growth in southern Europe.
But there is no sense that any possible successor will change that, and if anything, they will be to her right in pandering to anti-immigrant sentiment in Germany and doing little to link up Macron to rebalance the European Union’s economy away from conventional neoliberal orthodoxy.
She is the last in a remarkable quintet of European political leaders who have run Germany since 1970—Willy Brandt, Helmut Schmidt, Helmut Kohl, Gerhard Schröder, and Angela Merkel. That solid, even stolid, stability rooted in Atlanticism and European integration is now over.