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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 September 2018

The lingering presence of Angela Merkel and the consequences for the broader direction of Europe

The German leader will soon enter into a coalition government in which her Christian Democratic Union will hold just six of the 15 cabinet seats, writes Damien McElroy

Angela Merkel. Michael Sohn / AP Photo
Angela Merkel. Michael Sohn / AP Photo

Outside the snow was falling as a chill had set in across Munich. The restaurant was warm and snug. The sort of place that offers a generous welcome for all who come through the door.

A buzz went round the room. Ursula von der Leyen, the defence minister and stalwart of Angela Merkel’s cabinet, had chosen the modest venue for dinner.

In the long reign of the German chancellor, ultra-loyal figures such as Mrs von der Leyen have prospered. Close-up it is clear the defence minister is now on manoeuvres for her own shot at the top job.

Despite the tumultuous events of Mrs Merkel’s era, the German leader had the knack of absolute calm. Two delegates at a Munich security conference held this weekend were overheard discussing when they had last met on a German election campaign trail. Was it 2007 or 2009, neither were immediately sure. What was certain was the outcome: Mrs Merkel had won.

The German leader will soon enter into a coalition government in which her Christian Democratic Union will hold just six of the 15 cabinet seats. That concession alone has finished her career. Like much of the rest of Europe, German has a transitional government. An added downside is that no one knows if the end will come swiftly or linger for years.

What is sure is the real world consequences. There is an open effort to regroup by her party colleagues.

While the Chancellor is silent, Mrs von der Leyen has stepped into an emerging trans-Atlantic row over the EU setting up its own defence force.

Washington has condemned the move. Jens Stoltenberg, the Nato secretary general, was also in Munich and retorted the EU cannot feasibly hope to defend Europe. The continent’s largest defence force is leaving as Britain exits the block.

Mrs von der Leyen faces her own credibility issues on the matter. The German army has been so starved of funds under her tenure, it can barely operate outside the country’s borders. Yet she has become a proponent of the European build up.

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There is no doubt that if Mrs Merkel was a strong leader that the emerging row with the US would not happening. Put it another way. The German chancellor kept a lid on the issue but now lacks the ability to do so.

The sense of entering uncharted waters is pervasive. Mrs Merkel’s party is the largest in parliament but will serve as a minority even within the new coalition.

Another rising star in the Christian Democrats, Jens Spahn has started touring the grassroots making speeches about how the Christian Democrats must seen to shape German culture. The concept of Leitkultur is designed to respond to fears of “multikulti” or that multiple cultures displace the German way of life.

In the cautious way of German politics, he has proposed that schools introduce civic lessons. These “decency, virtues, values” lessons would cohere to a unifying national concept.

The arrival of more than one million people in a wave from the Middle East after 2015 remains the elephant in the room. Shaping the impact of the new refugee population has obvious dangers.

The renewal of the grand coalition with the Social Democrats heightens the risk that the voters view the next government as the dead centre of politics.

The general election in September provided guidance that Germans were preparing for a splintering of German politics. Not only did the far-right Alternative for Germany enter parliament but the radical liberal Free Democrats returned in a new non-centrist guise.

Careerism is no longer a guarantee of success anywhere in German politics. Young activists in the Social Democrats have risen up against the proposed third grand coalition and could yet scupper the bargain.

As with the EU-Nato row, Mrs Merkel can only offer to keep a lid on shifts in the political agenda.

The lingering presence of Mrs Merkel has obvious consequences for the broader direction of Europe. To Emmanuel Macron falls the crown. The long-held Parisian ideal of a German Social Democrat government led by Mrs Merkel looks set to be his plaything.

Time will elapse quickly. It is possible that Mr Macron will be able to capitalise on a more integrationist European agenda. It is also possible that whatever happens in Germany, European voters will continue to frustrate such grand visions. Watch the elections in Italy next month for a radical shake-up that has Rome unable to go along with Paris.

Look no further than Brexit for Mrs Merkel’s loss of potency. Mr Macron has the luxury of holding out for what ever he can get from the ruins of the process. London is so desperate it would take an Angela deal in a heartbeat. Tellingly she temporises, claiming confusion over what the British really want.

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