One of the world’s most famed political cartoons is John Tenniel’s “Dropping the Pilot.” Published by Punch in 1890, it depicts the dismissal of Otto von Bismarck as chancellor of the German empire by portraying him, in the uniform of a ship’s pilot, descending into a small boat as Kaiser Wilhelm II watches unconcernedly from a liner’s railings. Bismarck was the statesman who established the country as the pre-eminent political and industrial power of 19th-century Europe. Wilhelm, impatient with a cautious policy which had largely preserved peace in a turbulent continent, used his power as emperor to dispense with him.
Now Angela Merkel too has been dropped. The 21st-century chancellor said Monday that she would leave her position in 2021 and also would not seek re-election as leader of the Christian Democratic Union party. Her boss was not the direct authority of an imperial sovereign, but indirectly that of the German people – who expressed their will through recent regional elections in which her CDU and its coalition ally, the Christian Social Union, suffered heavy losses in Hesse and Bavaria. Expressed also through a surge of support in this past year for the radical right Alternative for Germany (AfD), now the largest opposition party in the Bundestag (federal parliament) and present in the government of every one of the country’s states.
The AfD’s activists, some expressing views close to fascism, are regularly out on the streets of German cities. Electoral votes usually in the low teens are far from sweeping them into real power, but show them firmly poised as a receptacle of many Germans’ distaste for the hundreds of thousands of immigrants, mainly from the Middle East, whom Merkel allowed in three years ago. Since then, the number of refugees in Germany has risen to 1.4 million.
Merkel announced her decision to leave politics with her customary lack of emotion. No public tears. A flat statement that this would be better for her country. But will it be better? Some think so. Greece, still struggling to recover and Italy, now in a deepening debt crisis, have long blamed Merkel’s “austerity” policy for choking off possibilities for growth and imposing suffering on the already-poor.
Italy’s most powerful figure is the deputy prime minister and leader of the far-right Lega (League), Matteo Salvini. He is now working with former Trump adviser Steve Bannon and others on the populist right to greatly increase their movement’s power in the EU parliamentary elections in May next year. It’s a project which, if successful, will be as large a political spasm as any in the past decade. Salvini, after the Bavarian election, tweeted “goodbye” to Merkel, writing that the “old system” in Brussels has lost, in which he rejoices.
Merkel’s closest ally in Europe, French President Emmanuel Macron, will not rejoice – though with his customary sharpness, he will have expected this. He cannot give up on EU integration – it is a defining theme of his presidency – but for the moment, until some stability returns to German politics, he is on his own. Merkel’s intention to carry on until her term ends in three years may be thwarted by her rivals, some of whom have been displaying their policy views to the German media in the battle for the party’s chairmanship -- an obvious launching post for becoming chancellor. Even should she continue to the end of her mandate, she will be much weaker.
Both Macron’s hopes for a partner in Europe and Merkel’s hopes to end her natural term depend on who will be chosen to lead the CDU. Her own preference appears to be for Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, whom Merkel chose to be the party’s general secretary in February. AKK, as she is widely known, was chief minister of the small state of Saarland and has identified herself both as a feminist and as a social conservative – opposing, on religious grounds (she is a staunch Roman Catholic) same-sex marriages. Her political position is centrist, similar to Merkel’s.
She is not, however, the early favorite. That is Friedrich Merz, a 62-year-old lawyer who had been leader of the CDU’s parliamentary group. He lost out in a power struggle with Merkel before she became chancellor and left politics for a high-level business career in 2009. His post as German chairman of a division of the asset management company BlackRock may attract some criticism: the company was fined 3.25 million euros by Germany’s Federal Financial Supervisory Authority in 2016 for faulty reporting. In a press conference earlier this week, he said he could work with Merkel if he were to win the chairman’s job – but criticized her, without naming her, for allowing the AfD room to grow, then described immigration as the largest challenge facing the country.
The third politician to declare himself – with a low, single figure score in the early poll – is Jens Spahn, the 38-year-old health minister, and the candidate of the party’s more conservative wing. He is strong on cutting immigration, arguing that “We have to limit and direct that flow (of immigrants), and reform the right to asylum and the immigration law.”
Others are likely to enter the race but, for the moment, the two male candidates offer Merkel the largest challenge to finishing her term as Chancellor, while Merz appears best suited to a partnership with Macron on pursuing a more closely united, ambitious EU.
But all now must work on a shifting, and already much-changed, German political field. The CDU’s partner (besides its long-term partnership with the now-troubled, Bavarian-based Christian Social Union), is the Social Democratic Party (SPD), which, in line with most other center-left parties in Europe, has, in the regional elections, seen its standing decline. As it falters, the leftist Green Party gains – replacing it on the left in both Hesse and Bavaria.
Merkel has been a formidable political figure in her 13 years as chancellor, dictating the terms of EU developments, commanding the center in Germany. She can no longer do either. Due both respect and admiration, she leaves her country more divided, the EU weaker, than either were when she came to power. Much – most – of that was not her fault. In any case, the pilot is dropped. The movements and tensions now must work their way through the continent without her hand at the helm.
John Lloyd co-founded the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford. He has written several books, including “What the Media Are Doing to Our Politics” and “Journalism in an Age of Terror.” He is a contributing editor at the Financial Times and the founder of FT Magazine.
The views expressed in this article are not those of Reuters News.