Tuesday 18 June 2019

John Downing: Angela's 'long goodbye' will add to woes facing the EU


German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Photo: REUTERS/Hannibal Hanschke
German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Photo: REUTERS/Hannibal Hanschke
John Downing

John Downing

The 64-year-old low-key German woman has been a household name across the world for the past 13 years. Now she wants to begin to exit the political stage, starting with quitting her party's chair.

The career of the first woman to lead the German government has been truly remarkable. When she first became Chancellor of Germany in 2005, George W Bush was US president, Jacques Chirac was president of France, Tony Blair was UK prime minister and Bertie Ahern was the Taoiseach here.

She has won a remarkable four terms in the top job and astutely led government and managed matters in the EU. But gradually her power has been eroded, especially with a whole series of regional election reverses.

Her decision to uncouple chairing her Christian Democratic party from the Chancellorship of Germany goes against her previously stated preference that the two jobs should be held by the same person.

If she manages the orderly retreat from politics which she has outlined, bowing out of the top job in 2021, she will be the first German political colossus to leave on her own terms. Willy Brandt, Helmut Kohl and Gerhard Schröder were all forced out of public life for various reasons.

There are question marks, though, over the feasibility of her signalled 'long goodbye'. The shaky coalition she has is up for review next year and there is some speculation that the Social Democrats may pull the plug.

In Brussels, many diplomats acknowledge her fundamental commitment to the European Union. But it has been clear that her enthusiasm for the project was a fraction of that shown by Helmut Kohl, who was the last of a generation of leaders who had bitter experience of World War II.

Her low-key role in the eurozone crisis, which followed the global bank collapse and recession, was often sharply criticised. But it did chime with the German people's more frugal and careful take on life, and is at least part of the reason the voters kept faith with her across four elections.

The migration crisis of 2015 was a major turning point in her career. At first her decision to open borders to refugees from the Middle East, North Africa and elsewhere appeared to be accepted.

But soon there was a backlash and it also created big tensions with some of her EU colleagues. These tensions persist at home and across Europe.

At best, Angela Merkel has been accused of offering no strong lead while avoiding the worst outcomes occurring.

The election of pro-EU French President Emmanuel Macron in May 2017 was heralded as a potential revival of the Franco-German axis driving the European Union. But Ms Merkel's weakened position at home, and her lower level of EU enthusiasm, meant this has not materialised.

She has, however, remained adamant that a UK Brexit deal cannot undo the EU single market.

Irish Independent

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