So, Angela Merkel has ignored the Spectator’s advice and has decided to run for a fourth term as German Chancellor in next year’s federal elections. If she wins and serves a full term, she’ll overtake Helmut Kohl as the longest serving German Chancellor since Bismarck. What does Merkel’s bid for four more years mean for Germany – and Britain? And after this year’s dreadful regional election results, how on earth has she survived to fight another day?
Last month Merkel looked like a busted flush, an electoral liability. Her decision to open Germany’s borders to over a million fleeing refugees led to a surge in support for Alternative fur Deutschland, Germany’s fledgling anti-immigration party. There was even talk that the CSU, the CDU’s Bavarian sister party, might field a rival candidate for the Chancellorship if she ran again. So why does she now look like a much better bet than she did a month ago? The answer to that question is Donald Trump.
Trump has transformed the political landscape in Germany, even more than he has in Britain. While some Brexiteers have seen his triumph as validation of the Brexit vote, in Germany the only politician who stands to gain from his shock victory is that arch-europhile, Angela Merkel.
If Hillary had won, the CDU might have been emboldened to get behind a rival candidate – Merkel’s charismatic defence minister, Ursula von der Leyen, for instance. However with Trump on his way into the White House any fresh face now seems far too risky. Domestically, Merkel remains damaged by the immigration crisis, but in the international arena there’s no German politician who can hope to match her, and Trump’s election has moved foreign affairs to the top of the agenda. For the Germans, with their history of division and dictatorship, a wild card in the White House is far more alarming than it is in Britain. Safety first will be the watchword in next year’s German elections, the perfect mantra for Merkel’s re-election campaign.
Merkel’s decision to run again will have repercussions for Brexit too. A Merkel in campaign mode is bound to be less conciliatory towards Britain, and the myriad uncertainties of Trump’s accession makes the future of the EU far more pressing than preserving Anglo-German trade. For Germany, the EU is a Franco-German alliance above all else (always has been, always will be) and Merkel will do all she can to help the French and stop Marine Le Pen. For Germany, France trumps Britain. If France wants a hard Brexit, the Germans will make sure they get it. For better or worse Merkel’s re-run makes a hard Brexit far more likely, and a soft Brexit a lot less so.
How about the wider world? In the aftermath of Trump’s election, Merkel has already been crowned by the liberal media as the unofficial leader of the western world, a coronation that President Obama has done his utmost to facilitate. For the last eight years the special relationship has been between Washington and Berlin. Relations between Trump and Merkel are bound to be a lot less cordial, yet Merkel won widespread praise for her pointed message to the new President Elect, and Washington may yet be thankful for a European leader who can fight her corner, and rein in Trump’s wilder ideas. With America in a state of flux, and Britain preoccupied by Brexit, for the moment Merkel looks unassailable. Her role as leader of the liberal west may be largely symbolic, but with Trump sounding so vague about Nato and so pally towards Putin, it still means something, all the same.
So will four more years of Merkel be the salvation of Germany, and the EU, or bring about its downfall? Prosaically, the answer probably lies somewhere in between. For the last three years, Merkel has governed Germany as the leader of a so-called Grand Alliance, a coalition of CDU and SPD. Chances are, if she wins again, she’ll need another Grand Alliance to remain in office. The CDU is more Majorite than Thatcherite, the SPD is more Social Democrat than Socialist, and even the AfD don’t want to leave the European Union. Referendums are banned in Germany (no Brexit for them) and proportional representation makes electoral landslides almost impossible. Forever mindful of the traumas of the last century, Germans are cautious and conservative, and Trump and Brexit will make them even more so. In these turbulent times, Britons should be relieved at the prospect of four more years of Merkel. Love her or loathe her, at least she knows what she’s doing, and that’s more than can be said for some new players on the world stage.