5th Aug 2021


German domestic turmoil prolongs EU leadership gap

  • German power - fading despite German chancellor Angela Merkel and German commission president Ursula von der Leyen at the most recent EU summit? (Photo: Council of the European Union)

Germany's political turmoil, which deepened on Monday with the resignation of the leader of the ruling centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), following a week of chaos with the far-right in Thuringia, will cast a long shadow on the country's upcoming EU presidency in the second half of this year.

It will mean that Germany will continue to look inwards and be unable to provide the leadership many in the EU hope it could bring.

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  • Annagret Kramp-Karrenbauer will abandon her chancellorship ambitions once a new CDU heir is found (Photo: CDU/Saxon-Anhalt)

The turmoil and its fallout also means that the increasing fragmentation of the European political scene has reached the German federal level, making any possible German EU leadership more fragile than under chancellor Angela Merkel's almost unprecedented 15-year reign.

On Monday, CDU leader Annagret Kramp-Karrenbauer said she would quit her role as party chief and not seek the CDU's nomination to be chancellor-candidate at the next general election in autumn 2021. Kamp-Karrenbauer had been hand-picked by Merkel as a favoured successor, before winning party election to the post.

That announcement came after a liberal FDP politician won the premiership with the votes of CDU plus the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) in the eastern state of Thuringia.

The backlash was immediate - but it took several days to topple AKK, Merkel's anointed successor, whose orders as party leader not to work with far-right or far-left parties were ignored in Thuringia.

Now the leadership contest is on, the new CDU chief should be chosen by the summer.

The race will likely determine the direction the centre-right party and Germany will take after Merkel's leaves the chancellery, but will also hold off any major developments in the EU.

Potential candidates are former MEP Armin Laschet, who runs the largest German state of North Rhine-Westphalia, and is a centrist, most likely to follow Merkel's policies.

Friedrich Merz, a pro-business former CDU parliamentary leader is an arch-rival of Merkel. Jens Spahn, the health minister, who has criticised Merkel's migration policy, is also a potential candidate.

Markus Söder, leader of the Christian Social Union (CSU), is a popular figure, but is unlikely to be heading the larger sister party.

Depending on how the leadership race goes, early elections might be called, the new CDU leader could upset the junior coalition partners, the debilitated Social Democrats.

Presidency troubles

The leadership battle within CDU will culminate before the start of the German EU presidency in July, but the internal upheaval will continue.

"The glaring leadership gap in Germany comes at a time when the EU needs strong leaders to deal with a plethora of problems, not least the immense strains in the transatlantic relationship and the growing global role of China," Judy Dempsey a senior fellow at Carnegie Europe wrote.

"In a bid to buy time before next year's federal election, the CDU wants to spend the coming months finding a new leader, leaving in the ensuing period a vacuum in Europe," she added in her analysis.

Germany, meanwhile, will take the helm of the EU when the new EU commission is in the process of launching some of its flagship legislative proposals.

Not least, Germany will have to take charge of the files on implementing the one-trillion-euro Green Deal.

Migration tectonic plates shift?

Crucially it will have to work on European consensus on the EU executive's new plans on migration and asylum, expected to be unveiled in March.

The previous migration reform plans of 2016 have failed as member states were unable to hammer out a compromise, already a warning sign of the waning consensus-building power of Berlin.

And if EU Council president Charles Michel and the Croatian EU presidency cannot bring together member states on the next seven-year budget in the next few months, the Germans will inherit the divisive budget negotiations as well.

In addition, trade talks with the UK will simultaneously intensify, and although the commission is leading negotiations, leadership will be needed to keep the 27 in the same boat.

France and the EU parliament are also keen to kick off a two-year soul-searching exercise on the future of Europe, which will also likely to suffer due to Germany's own search for direction.

Grace period

Germany has been increasingly inward looking in the last years as the Merkel-era comes to an end.

French president Emmanuel Macron's eurozone and EU reform plans have been bogged down by coalition infighting within Germany in late 2018.

At the time, French finance minister Bruno Le Maire called on Germany to stop delaying EU decisions on taxes and the eurozone budget, warning it could fuel populism.

"Merkel's Germany has been criticised for not providing international leadership. It's hard to know what kind of Europe Merkel wants in terms of economic and political integration," Dempsey adds.

And that will become increasingly problematic, as France and Germany have become even more weightier within the EU with the UK finally leaving the bloc, after 47 years.

"No more deals without consent of France and Germany," one EU source described the power balance after Brexit.

Despite the frustrations with the cautious and recently absent German leadership, the Merkel era is seen as the last grace period for Germany and the EU.

But strategic thinking on Europe has come to a halt in an "intellectually dead grand-coalition", as one Berlin source put it.

And whatever shape it will have, the next German government's influence will be less on European affairs than Merkel's, the source adds.

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