Advocating stability abroad, Merkel must mind pitfalls at home

January 25, 2019

By Andreas Rinke and Paul Carrel

BERLIN (Reuters) – Addressing world leaders in Davos this week, German Chancellor Angela Merkel made a robust defense of multilateralism, but looming pitfalls at home risk undermining her globe-trotting advocacy for international cooperation before too long.

Merkel’s Davos speech set out her ambition in 2019: use “win-win” diplomacy to defend the multilateral order on which German fortunes rest and which is under threat from President Donald Trump’s “America First” approach.

Merkel has a new global platform to work with. For the next two years, Germany has a seat on the U.N. Security Council and she intends to use it to resist growing nationalism.

The chancellor is already networking, intending to fly to this year’s G20 president Japan in early February to coordinate with a like-minded power, while selling her multilateral message to lawmakers at home.

“You can see that foreign policy is now a major focus of her work since she gave up the CDU chair in December,” Elisabeth Motschmann, a lawmaker with Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU), said after the chancellor spoke to a closed-door session of parliament’s foreign relations committee last week.

Merkel’s decision last October to give up the CDU leadership, after the party bled support in a regional poll, but stay on as chancellor for the parliamentary term running through to 2021 left many in Germany believing she was a lame duck.

But since her protege, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, took over the CDU leadership in December, Merkel has left her to plot the party’s domestic strategy while she focuses on foreign policy.

The strategy looks fine, so long as the CDU performs well.


However, setbacks for Merkel’s conservatives, and their Social Democrat (SPD) coalition partners, in European and regional elections starting in May could destabilize – or even end – Merkel’s fragile ruling alliance.

The coalition government came close to collapse several times in 2018 and, although the conservative and SPD allies are determined to get on better this year, the elections could test the cohesion of their marriage of convenience once more.

The Alternative for Germany (AfD) looms large over three regional elections in September and October in the former East, where the far-right party is threatening to surpass Merkel’s CDU and become the largest party.

Merkel’s allies are already plotting how to win back voters from the AfD, but they are also sweating on the fate of the SPD, Germany’s oldest party, which is facing an existential crisis and has the option to quit the coalition at an autumn review.

“We have a common interest in there being stable, large, ‘big tent’ parties (Volksparteien),” said Health Minister Jens Spahn, a senior CDU figure. “So 2019 will be a year when the Volksparteien must assert themselves.”

The AfD, which surged into the national parliament for the first time in 2017 on the back of widespread discontent with Merkel’s open-door refugee policy, trails the CDU only narrowly in Saxony and Thuringia, two of the three states to hold the autumn elections.

In the third, Brandenburg, it is level with the CDU and just behind the SPD. Such is the far-right party’s strength that one CDU regional leader is even open to the possibility of teaming up with the far-left Linke to keep the AfD out of power.

Should the AfD overtake the CDU in the elections in the eastern states, discussion would likely resume about Merkel leaving office before 2021.


May’s European parliamentary elections pose another risk.

Merkel’s Bavarian allies are desperate for their candidate, Manfred Weber, to emerge from the vote as the next European Commission president. A poor showing by their conservative alliance could make the Bavarians troublesome allies again.

“Then the charge will be heard loudly again, that the chancellor doesn’t explain Europe well enough,” said Gero Neugebauer, political scientist at Berlin’s Free University.

A final domestic pitfall for Merkel is the fate of the SPD, who risk losing their state premier in Bremen in a regional election in May.

The party of Willy Brandt and Helmut Schmidt, two of Germany’s great post-war statesmen, has slumped to 15 percent in polls and could exercise an option in the coalition agreement to pull out of the ruling alliance at an autumn mid-term review.

SPD sources say the party leaders are determined to keep the coalition going through to 2021. SPD lawmakers also have no interest in an early election that might cost them their seats.

All the same, the pressures of the European and regional elections are likely to absorb Merkel’s attention from May.

“It’s highly unlikely Merkel will be able to assume a position of global leadership this year,” said Mujtaba Rahman, managing director at Eurasia Group, citing the elections, the coalition’s fragility and her efforts to manage a smooth exit after 2019.

“That’s a tough domestic context to manage through before coming up for air in Europe or beyond.”

(Writing by Paul Carrel; Editing by Alison Williams)