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The end of the Merkel era: What do the respective potential new chancellors mean for the European Union?

Angela Merkel’s significance for Europe

The 26th of September 2021 is an important day for Germany, but also for the European Union. After all, the upcoming Bundestag elections will also be decisive for Europe, as Germany is not only Europe’s largest economy but also holds an important leadership position. In addition, with Chancellor Angela Merkel, for the first time in German history an acting chancellor will not stand for re-election. Many people will miss Merkel’s calmness and determination on the international stage. During her 16 years in government, she earned respect as a crisis manager, as happened with the financial crisis in 2008, the euro crisis in 2010, the refugee crisis in 2015, Brexit and, most recently, the Coronavirus pandemic. Her style of government was often described as persistent in negotiations, but always eager to reach compromises. However, she was also accused of a lack of ambition and vision regarding the EU. Her stance during the euro crisis also earned her and Germany a lot of hostility. Symbolic of Merkel’s European policy was the attempt to protect Europe from disintegration, to preserve the status quo instead of embarking on a major upheaval. The new German chancellor will therefore be faced with great challenges. This begs the question: What may be expected from Merkel’s potential successors – Olaf Scholz, chancellor candidate for the SPD, Armin Laschet, chancellor candidate for Merkel’s CDU/CSU and Annalena Baerbock, chancellor candidate of the Greens – in terms of EU policy?

Scholz: The surprising front runner

Both in terms of his popularity and his party’s poll ratings, Olaf Scholz is a step ahead of his opponents shortly before the election. The current Federal Finance Minister and Vice-Chancellor has a lot of experience in government and is no stranger to the European stage. Not many observers expected the current run of the SPD and its leading candidate, especially since the last ten years have been marked by internal party disputes, frequently changing party leaders and a general loss of public confidence in the party’s work. Scholz scores above all with his calm presence. His involvement in the CumEx affair hardly plays a role in the public debate. His charisma, or lack thereof, is one of the reasons why some observers see parallels with Chancellor Merkel. In terms of EU policy, his involvement in bringing about the European Recovery Fund must be noted, as Scholz worked hard to convince other EU finance ministers, according to EU Commissioner Frans Timmermans. As a result, the EU has now decided to take on debt after all, a project that the CDU/CSU government in Germany had resisted for years.  In the spirit of his party, Scholz is striving for a united Europe with a stronger focus on social issues, a social union, so to speak. With his stoic calmness and diplomatic willingness to compromise, he radiates stability. With this profile, he resembles Merkel more than his competitors. Since he was also involved in the German government as Vice-Chancellor and Finance Minister for the last four years, it can be assumed that with him as Chancellor there will be a certain continuity in German European policy.

Laschet: A great heritage

As leader of the CDU, Laschet began with a promising starting position to succeed Angela Merkel. But his leadership role in the party is not unquestioned and support from party members is waning. Above all, internal conflicts with the leader of the sister party CSU, Markus Söder, have cast doubt on the unity within the party alliance. In any case, since the beginning of the year, the CDU has experienced a historic drop in its poll ratings and also rather poor ratings in terms of the popularity of its candidate for chancellor. Laschet has a lot of experience in government, as he is the current Minister-President of North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany’s most populous state. He also won the chairmanship of his party earlier this year against strong competition. With his strong commitment to Europe and the EU, it would mean a certain stability and also continuity in EU relations. Repeatedly, he has emphasized the importance of the European Union for Germany without, however, proposing concrete reforms or means to be well prepared to face the challenges of the coming decades. He calls for a balanced stance towards Moscow and Beijing, a resurgence of US-European relations and more foreign policy sovereignty for the EU. This also includes the introduction of qualified majority voting on foreign policy issues to make the EU more capable of acting. Laschet’s chancellorship would most likely simply continue where Merkel left off. A stability that not a few in the EU want more than anything else.

Baerbock: Leader in the fight against climate change

Annalena Baerbock is not only the only female candidate for chancellor but also the youngest among them. She has no government experience so far, but she has great ambitions in the fight against climate change. She is co-leader of her party and is seen as progressive and modern. However, allegations of plagiarism in her recently published book and inconsistencies in her CV have done enormous damage to her credibility and thus her poll ratings. Still, her party stands for the issues of sustainability and the fight against climate change like no other. Moreover, since the last federal election, they have seen an enormous increase in support among the population, so much so that for the first time the race for the chancellorship is being fought not by two but three opponents from different parties. Baerbock and the Greens have ambitious goals for the EU. Accordingly, they previously called to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 65 per cent by 2030 compared to 1990, instead of the currently proposed 55 per cent.[1] With her as chancellor, Germany could also be expected to take tougher action against countries like Poland or Hungary on the issues of migration, the rule of law and LGBTQ rights. At the European level, her chancellorship would strengthen Germany’s ecological orientation and bring about a policy that is above all oriented towards sustainability. Apart from the ambitious goals for a sustainable and climate-neutral Europe and the more confrontational stance towards Poland and Hungary, it is above all her claim to bring about the promised new beginning that makes it clear that Baerbock’s style of government would differ most from Merkel’s of all three candidates.

Outlook: Status quo or new beginning?

All in all, despite the many major challenges facing the European Union, Germany’s role in this alliance of states has so far only played a subordinate role in the election campaign. In publicly broadcast debates between the three candidates, mostly domestic issues were discussed, only one debate at the end of June dealt with foreign and defense policy, again focusing less on the EU than on Germany’s role in the world. And although Merkel was of great importance to the European community for many, none of the prospective successors seems to aspire to take up her legacy. After eight years together in government, a new coalition between the CDU/CSU and the SPD can be virtually ruled out. Even though the Greens’ poll ratings have increasingly declined in recent weeks, it is difficult to imagine a coalition without their participation. It is highly likely that there will be a coalition of three parties for the first time in Germany since the 50’s. There is some agreement among all candidates regarding the EU, for example on majority decisions for EU foreign policy matters. The EU is facing a challenging decade with the fight against global warming, the economic recovery after the Corona pandemic and the assertion of its own sovereignty between Russia, China and the USA. Germany’s role in this will also be determined by the outcome of the upcoming election.

The views expressed herein are those of the author(s) and not necessarily the views of FTI Consulting, Inc., its management, its subsidiaries, its affiliates, or its other professionals.

[1] See Bündnis 90/Die Grünen Bundestag parliamentary group website, last accessed 24 September 2021.

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