She is one of the most powerful people in the world, some even see her as the leader of the free world. Only a couple of weeks ago, she won her fourth election victory, after twelve years in power. And she has undeniably been successful during the course of her three terms as head of the German government. But now the point has been reached where Angela Merkel should consider the unthinkable: resign.
Let me make one thing clear from the very beginning: no, I am not calling for Angela Merkel to resign immediately. However, I believe that in the medium to long term the German Chancellor should realise that her time in office is coming to an end and that plans should be made for the successful transfer of power to a successor within her conservative CDU party.
For many, Angela Merkel seems like the perfect example of a politician at the height of her power – a moderate, sensible, pragmatic and competent leader in times of change, chaos and crisis. Very few political leaders around the world have been so often positively contrasted with the eccentric, extreme and incompetent populist US President, Donald Trump. One might think of Merkel as the exemplary representative of traditional ‘good politics’. Although there is a lot to this characterisation, it is also way off. And here is why.
Firstly, there is the length of her time in office. Merkel first became leader of the CDU in 2000, more than 17 years ago. If a week is a long time in politics, then 17 years surely is more than an eternity… Merkel has been chancellor since she won the federal election in 2005. This already is the third longest stint of any German Bundeskanzler and one of the longest of any democratic leader in the free world at the moment.
After 12 years in power every politician would find it hard to come up with new ideas, show the same enthusiasm and passion that a job like hers requires or adapt to the ever-changing set of challenges arising in today’s fast paced, chaotic world of politics. Merkel – and one cannot even really blame her for this – has run out of steam. 12 years is an incredibly long time in politics and probably long enough for Angela Merkel.
Running out of steam is one thing. Angela Merkel however has also managed to alienate and disenfranchise many in German politics and German society. Merkel quite laudably set out to reform and modernise her party when she took over. She went on to ditch support for nuclear power, military conscription and widespread reforms of the German tax system.
Many on the political right felt left out, left behind by and pushed out of the CDU, a party that always had been home to essentially everyone right-of-centre in Germany. When Merkel then acted irresponsibly during the refugee crisis (admittedly with the best of intentions) she fundamentally alienated significant parts of what historically had been the base of her party. In doing so, she first disenfranchised many and then pushed them towards the populist, hard-right Alternative for Germany (AfD).
The AfD’s success is in no small part an anti-Merkel vote – the German Chancellor inadvertently has become an enabler of those elements of German politics whose success she always wanted to prevent. The only way these dangerous trends can end is for Angela Merkel to resign. As long as she remains at the heart of her country’s politics the CDU won’t fully recover and the AfD won’t disappear.
Finally, we should not forget the European dimension of the question of who leads Germany. Over the last years Angela Merkel has become a very strong EU leader, dominating the other 27 heads of state and government. And while a German chancellor will always play a central role in Europe due to the size and economic and political strength of Germany, Merkel’s semi-autocratic rule over Europe has arguably left the continent in a worse place.
First, she alienated the southern Euro countries by forcing austerity programmes on them, then she snubbed many Eastern European countries by ignoring them during the refugee crisis and consequently demanding their participation in solving a crisis she at the very least had worsened. During her time in office, Merkel has engaged in strongly euro-federalist rhetoric, while at the same time blocking necessary reform of the EU.
From a European perspective either a genuinely less euro-federalist German leader with a plan for a better, less deeply integrated Europe or someone who actually delivers on the plans for a European super-state would be needed. Merkel’s muddling-through approach might have saved the EU during the worst crises of the last decade; however, a new way will be needed for the future.
Angela Merkel has been a great German chancellor. She has led her country – and the EU – through multiple crises and deserves huge credit for her successes. This does not mean that she should remain in power forever, though. Merkel would be well advised to see through the ongoing coalition negotiations, use her influence to achieve a mutually successful Brexit and find a moment of calm and stability during the next two years and hand over to a successor. Her resignation would be a last service to Germany and Europe alike.