Editor’s Note: David A. Andelman, a contributor to CNN and columnist for USA Today, is the author of “A Shattered Peace: Versailles 1919 and the Price We Pay Today.” He formerly served as a foreign correspondent for The New York Times in Asia and Europe and Paris correspondent for CBS News. Follow him on Twitter @DavidAndelman. The views expressed in this commentary are his.
Angela Merkel, Germany’s iron chancellor, is in trouble – and by extension, so is much of the European Union.
During her 12 years in office, Merkel has steered Germany to the position of becoming the EU’s economic powerhouse. She has served as the anchor, financier, refuge and, in the eyes of some, the conscience of this continent.
Since the narrow plurality she eked out in last month’s national elections, Merkel and her conservative Christian Democrats (and its sister party the CSU in Bavaria), have sought to cobble together a coalition between the Greens and pro-business Free Democrats (FDP) that would allow her to extend the 12 years she has already remained in office.
Sunday night, those talks collapsed as the FDP suddenly pulled out, its leader Christian Lindner proclaiming, “it is better not govern than to govern badly.”
But an even more damning indictment of the Chancellor was Lindner’s conclusion that “the four discussion partners have no common vision for modernization of the country or common basis of trust.” And the Green’s Jurgen Trittin expressed his “shock and horror.”
The result of all this could be fresh elections next year – a dangerous roll of the dice in a country and continent that only narrowly escaped some frightening challenges recently.
For in Europe these days, new uncertainties bring new opportunities – for the likes of Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump, not to mention France’s newly empowered leader, Emmanuel Macron.
Merkel has long been reckoned by some to be Europe’s Putin whisperer, the one Western leader who understood how to get through to the Russian leader, though continued to back tough Western sanctions on Russia in retaliation for its seizure of Crimea and incursions into eastern Ukraine.
They share a common language, the German that Putin learned as KGB leader in East Berlin during communist rule, Merkel growing up on the communist side of the wall separating East from West Germany.
It was hoped she could provide a similar function for Donald Trump, but that hasn’t worked out so well. It got off to a bad start back in March when a tepid attempt at a handshake went afoul on her first visit to the White House, setting the stage for an even more awkward press conference after their tête-à-tête.
Things never got much better, reaching a nadir at the July summit of the G20 in Hamburg which Merkel, as host, closed with an outright rebuke to Trump’s anti-climate change stance.
At the same time, France elected a new, dynamic leader in the form of Emmanuel Macron, who has made little effort to disguise his ambition or desire to return France to the leadership of Europe, with the new French President displacing or at least sharing the spotlight with Merkel.
Now both goals may be within his reach, particularly if a new election next year in Germany should strengthen the far right’s grip over the Bundestag.
So, none of these three – Trump, Putin or Macron – will be very sorry to see Merkel go, though it will very much leave Europe in the lurch.
None is capable of filling the role played by Germany and its leader. Only Merkel was prepared to open her country’s door last year to a million refugees, which did little incidentally to improve her electoral prospects among a somewhat reluctant German electorate. When some of the more fragile economies of southern Europe, particularly Greece, needed shoring up, it was Merkel and the power of German finance and industry that stepped into the breach to rescue Greece and the euro as a viable currency.
The most immediate question today, though, is what new hope all this might provide especially for the young, vibrant Alice Weidel, the bright face of the far-right party, Alternative for Germany (AfD), whose ideology has embraced a deeply nationalist, Germany-first and decidedly anti-immigrant agenda.
As the party’s group leader in the Bundestag, the 38-year-old is just waiting in the wings for Merkel to stumble, as she now appears to have done.
And Weidel is a woman who is very much in the ideological mold, at least, of Donald Trump. A drift to the right in Germany and an end to Merkel’s hold on power, would likely be very much in Trump’s comfort zone.
Still, be careful what you wish for, Mr President. Angela Merkel has proved to be a solid anchor for a Europe that has done very well by the United States, guaranteeing NATO strength against Russian challenges, providing a solid trading partner and safety valve for refugee pressures that have been kept far from America’s shores.
It’s not only too soon to throw Merkel over the side, but even to wish for a chancellor with less iron in her spine.