Emmanuel Macron, the 2017-elected President of France, has called Angela Merkel’s decision to step down as leader of the German CDU Party ‘dignified’ and ‘respectable’. His words are ambiguous but belie a thinly-veiled sense of vindication: Merkel’s regional election crash and the popularity of the AfD appear to justify Macron’s dramatic predictions of European populist doomsday. This may give Macron the political ammunition needed to once again fire out his claims that only a reformed eurozone and committed European defence policy can combat the dominant trend.
Firstly, the news of Merkel’s upcoming political retirement reveals the growing instability among northern European nations, especially in terms of the dwindling prominence of formerly-widespread conservative liberalism. Merkel’s coalition party, the SDU (Social Democratic Party), took a big hit in the Bavarian regional elections in October. Her own Christian Democratic Union party suffered from heavy losses in Hesse State, while the left-inclined Greens and far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) won around 19.5 per cent and 12 per cent of the vote respectively.
Merkel’s own party lost over 10 percentage points, while the SDP were dealt an even heavier blow; their percentage points dropped from 30.7 per cent to 19.9. None of this is particularly good news for France, who rely on a consistent, communicative and wealthy Germany for their own political influence throughout the bloc and internationally. The image of ‘Mercron’ is a European propagandist success: so long as the pair are smiling and happy, the rest of the world is under the impression that nothing in the super-bloc can go that wrong.
However, in many ways, the prospect of Merkel’s descent from power is exactly what Macron hoped for — and needs. More than anything, the outcome of Germany’s regional elections gives Macron useful political leverage and a figural permanency that Merkel has relinquished by announcing her retirement. While he has survived early-October cabinet reshuffles, internal squabbling and criticisms over his arrogance and tightly-controlled decision- making, Merkel has not. In fact, it’s altogether possible that Merkel’s successor, who will be elected in December, may call an early election and cut short her final term as Chancellor — well before her 2021 expiration date. Since the inception of his presidency Macron’s claims that Europe is on the verge of a populist takeover, and needs further integration to stave off a looming political crisis, have been quieted by Merkel. But now it seems a plausible reality.
Among other proposals for unity, Macron has called for the development of a European Monetary Fund where northern European countries can help save their economically flailing allies, set with a European Finance Minister and increasing contributions to a pan-European budget — nicknamed a ‘Marshall Plan’ of sorts. His vision is an understandable one since economic decline is heavily associated with populist support. But, it’s also one that has previously gained little traction. In a world where America First is the express policy of the US administration and Brexit is undermining the European project, Macron is perhaps alone in considering fiscal amalgamation and shared risk as a way of keeping Europe cohesive and strong in the face of international uncertainty.
Anti-federalists among European governments see his ideas as a detriment to national sovereignty and this has stunted Macron’s ability to push reforms through. Now that the unthinkable has happened — and Angela Merkel has either been ousted or pushed from her 13-year-long chancellorship and 18-year-long leadership of the CDU, depending on how you see it — this might change. Radical upheavals demand radical solutions, and, as the only-surviving bastion of a pre-populist world order, Macron’s reformist lifeline to conservative liberals might be the only option to preventing the spread of what he has termed populist ‘leprosy’ — now gaining ground in Germany and regaining ground in France. Unlike the consequences of Italy’s election of an anti-establishment, right-wing government before the summer was out, and their curation of a 2019 budget that was deemed unacceptable by the EU commission, the fall of Merkel is far more an indication of the political state of Europe from an international standpoint. Italy is complicated and poorer: liberalism there is hit-and-miss.
Macron wanted Europe to be shocked and convulsed into accepting his vision of Europe as logical and absolutely necessary: the fall of Merkel might do just that.