After 15 years of “Merkelism” the German chancellor’s neutral, consensus-building approach means many Europeans accept her country as the EU’s leader – but post-Angela Merkel Berlin will have to radically change tack, according to a study.
“Angela Merkel has come to embody a strong and stable Germany, positioning herself as Europe’s anchor though more than a decade of crises,” said Piotr Buras, the co-author of the report by the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR).
“But ‘Merkelism’ is no longer sustainable. Merkel may have adroitly managed the status quo across the continent, but the challenges that Europe faces now – the pandemic, climate change, geopolitical competition – require radical solutions, not cosmetic changes. The EU needs a visionary Germany.”
The study, based on polling in 12 EU member states, found “strong and continued” support for German leadership within the bloc and enduring approval for the chancellor, who steps down this month ahead of federal elections.
A large plurality (41%) of respondents, including majorities in the Netherlands (58%), Spain (57%) and Portugal (52%) said they would favour Merkel over France’s Emmanuel Macron in a hypothetical contest for EU president.
Pluralities across the 12 countries also said they trusted Germany to defend their interests across a range of issues, including – despite criticism of Germany’s hard line on austerity and balanced budgets – economic and financial policy (36%).
Even countries with very different policies, such as Spain (45%) and non-eurozone Hungary (50%), backed German economic leadership, while even the low 24% recorded in Italy was the strongest answer among those who expressed an opinion.
Merkel and the Polish PM, Mateusz Morawiecki, in Warsaw on Saturday. Photograph: Hubert Mathis/Zuma Press Wire/Rex/Shutterstock
Similarly, 35% of Europeans surveyed said they would be happy to see Berlin take the lead for the EU on defending human rights, including 49% of respondents in Hungary and 23% in Poland, both of which are involved in rule-of-law disputes with the bloc.
A plurality of Europeans polled for the study also believed that without Merkel there would have been more conflict in the world rather than less, a view held most strongly in Spain (33%), the Netherlands (30%) and Portugal (28%).
Support for Berlin as a potential geopolitical leader, however, was markedly low. Only 25% of respondents felt Germany should handle the EU’s relationship with the US, for example, with support for Berlin taking the lead in the bloc’s dealings with Russia (20%) and China (17%) even lower.
The report revealed a disconnect between the way Europeans see Germany and the way Germany sees itself, with German respondents yet to be persuaded that their country could or should play a greater role within the EU.
Only on the question of standing up for human rights and democracy did more than one-third (38%) of Germans say their country could defend EU interests, with one in five saying it would be unable to lead on any of the issues addressed in the survey.
Germans were also pessimistic about their country’s post-Merkel future, with a majority (52%) believing its “golden age” was past – a view shared by a sizeable minority (34%) in the 12 countries surveyed. Only 10% believed it was still to come.
The authors said the survey showed that to maintain the reputation and trust it has built up under Merkel’s leadership, Germany must radically rethink its EU policies, going beyond Merkelism to confront member states such as Poland and Hungary that are accused of violating the bloc’s values.
Beyond Europe’s borders, Germany must also change its broader foreign policy, they argued, finding a way to use its economic and political clout to defend Europe’s interests and principles by, for example, working closely with Joe Biden’s administration on a transatlantic approach to China.
The survey showed, however, that German domestic opinion would be an obstacle. “The key challenge, for whoever wins next week’s election, will be to convince Germans that a serious shift is required in how their country engages with the EU,” said the co-author Jana Puglierin, a senior policy fellow at the ECFR.
“The approach of putting EU cohesion above all else, which has shaped much of the EU’s policy agenda during the Merkel era, could prove a tempting pathway for Merkel’s successor. But in the face of international crises and domestic concerns about Germany’s role within the EU, ‘more of the same’ is unlikely to hold.”
For Germany to retain its status as the leading driver of EU policy, Puglierin said, it would need to “engage with the issues that are important to its citizens, and provide its EU partners with clearcut ideas about how the EU can compete in a divided and crisis-shaken world”.
Merkel’s successors would also need to “sell the importance of German leadership in the bloc to their voters at home”, she said. “They can no longer afford to remain neutral, or pursue the status quo. It is time for Berlin to take sides.”