Angela Merkel's Exit Is Bad News for Europe

With toxic nationalism making a comeback, Germany was supposed to be the one keeping things together.


Marquardt,Christian/ZUMA Press/Newscom

It's been a bad year for the world's most powerful woman and the heir apparent to the "leader of the free world" throne. Over the weekend, German Chancellor Angela Merkel's center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) earned another in a series of disappointing results at state-level elections, with both left and far-right parties picking up ground. Hours later, and after months of infighting within her government, Merkel told Germans what they already knew: that she was done.

Technically, she remains chancellor until her term ends in 2021. But barely able to keep her government together, she might as well resign sooner. This transition marks the end of a peaceful era and is a harbinger of great uncertainty for Germany, Europe, and the world.

Merkel's political demise began in 2015 with her fateful decision to open the country to a massive influx of refugees fleeing violence in the Middle East. That move set off a far-right backlash which she was never able to fully beat back.

By 2017, the chancellor was clinging to power mostly as a symbol of bygone stability. In that year's federal election, voters gave her and her party one last shot at governing. Less than two years later, Merkel begins her long goodbye after 13 years as head of state—and she will pass to her successor an even more divided nation.

On paper, Germany is doing well, especially compared to its European neighbors. It has not yet had to contend with a populist or nationalist takeover of its system like what's happened in Italy and Hungary. But German politics has not been immune to recent ills, and voters here seem increasingly dissatisfied with political centrism. Since 2015, electoral support for small, nonestablishment parties has risen dramatically.

Germany's far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) has seen the greatest gains. Rising to prominence in three short years, it has snatched voters from the center-right but also from the working class left by pushing an anti-immigration agenda. It is the first time a far-right party has had representation at the national level and in all regional parliaments since the end of World War II.

Meanwhile, Germany's center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD)—Merkel's reliable governing partner for years—is now polling behind the AfD. Many of its dissatisfied voters, demanding a stronger stance against the right, have flocked to the left-wing Green Party.

Polls conducted this month show that the centrist CDU/SPD coalition government now enjoys the approval of just 39 percent of citizens. What we have is a divided Germany. It may be stable in comparison to other countries in Europe but not to its own postwar political past.

Merkel's exit comes at an already frenetic time for Europe. Brexit negotiations are at a fever pitch, with the divorce deadline of March 2019 approaching. The E.U. may be on a collision course with Italy over the new prime minister's insistence on increasing government spending, even as fears mount that an Italian debt crisis could be in the works. A standoff between Poland and Hungary over national sovereignty in immigration law continues unabated.

France and Germany have long promoted the core E.U. values of integration, freedom of movement, and economic unity in a world that is trending against them. But to do this, both countries have to be politically strong and unified at home. If Merkel is a lame duck domestically, she is also a lame duck in Europe. Moreover, she has no clear successor, and it remains unclear whether any politician can fill her once large shoes.

Some say Merkel's exit could be a lifeline allowing the CDU and SPD to start fresh with voters. But that is a best-case scenario more than a reliable prediction. For the first time in decades, no one really knows what might be next for the country.

At a moment when toxic nationalism that many of us thought was relegated to the past seems to be making a comeback, Germany has been the last hope for keeping things together. For voters here to be flirting with the fringes is worrying indeed.