Lionised as the unbeatable, long-stay centrist of European politics, Angela Merkel is often photographed these days in the back of her car, head bent over her phone. It is a shot that invariably makes her look embattled. The Merkel era is not over yet but, in the description of one of her pithier foes, it has “passed its zenith”. She brought home a lacklustre election result, tried a risky three-way coalition and now relies on a continued liaison with the Social Democrats, who are themselves in disarray.
A country that once prided itself on balancing deals to keep the centre united and extremists out has succumbed, rather suddenly, to a sense of instability being the new normal.
Two major events make Germany a less predictable force. First, Merkelism itself is in sharp decline and political Germany is bracing itself for change. German politics differs from Britain in that its processes are more drawn out. That does not make it any the less brutal — remember that the fresh-faced Merkel rose by dispatching her patron, Helmut Kohl, by being the leading author of a letter calling on the father of unification to go following a funding scandal.
Second, to have no established government five months after an election is a sign that, for all the faith in the elastic German centre ground, it does not align well these days. Merkel could not pull off a multi-coloured coalition. It took a hapless Social Democrat election candidate (Martin Schulz) too long to realise that on a threadbare 20 per cent of the vote, and having ruled out another coalition, he was extraordinarily ill-placed to reverse ferret and enter the new government.
The delay has cost Merkel’s Christian Democrats the sense that they are in control with the stable “Merkelator” at the helm. This machinery of state is beginning to look more Wizard of Oz than Vorsprung durch Technik.
Publicly, Merkel hides her irritation well — calm and stamina are her assets. Privately, though, she is frustrated to have her fourth term in hock to SPD grassroots members (including new joiners), who are voting over the next two weeks on whether the coalition should go ahead at all. A new, outspoken leader in Andrea Nahles may bring her party round to the prospect in return for control of key ministries (which risks further weakening Merkel). In this age of insurrections, attaining even this minimally steady state will be touch and go.
Merkel’s response has been canny and played to one abiding strength: an ability to deploy personnel choices as her body armour. So the promotion this week of a protégé, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, is significant for the German leader — and for Britain, on a thankless charm offensive with Berlin over Brexit and pick-and-mix trade deals.
A strong Catholic, “AKK” brings a more overtly Conservative voice from the Saarland in western Germany to balance accusations that Team Merkel was Protestant, hyper-rational and Berlin-based. The message abundantly clear to CDU voters who turned to the far Right, or lost faith in Merkel over the refugee wave in 2015, is that the days of grand gestures are over.
Kramp-Karrenbauer, as the new CDU general secretary, has increased her own chances of being Merkel’s successor. But the divide across the centre ground will widen as Social Democrats seek to appease their more Leftist base while the CDU seeks to unite the (non-extreme) Right of centre
Crucially, though, the newcomer to the top table has form in a street fight. Kramp-Karrenbauer irked Team Merkel in 2012 by breaking up a coalition with the Liberals at state level, which Merkel deemed a reckless risk — but still bounced back to win the state. “That was the moment Merkel saw someone with a kind of toughness not unlike her own,” a senior source on her team says.
History repeats the old conceits, as the great historian Elvis Costello once put it, and the woman slated to stabilise Merkel’s chancellorship takes the influential job of party chairman, from which role Merkel once moved against rivals to succeed Helmut Kohl.
For Merkel, being hailed as the leading voice of liberalism or leader of the free world has been bittersweet. Invariably, this sort of hype is the moment when the tipping-point beckons. She remains a leader forged in the old East — wary of Russia but no instinctive fan of the United States, even pre-Trump, and not more European than global in outlook. That leaves her belief system somewhere between an assertive Germany embedded in a Franco-German-led Europe.
I don’t think she ever did have time for Britain beyond its role as a free-market balance against French statism. It’s not just Brexit that makes Merkel uncomfortable. It is trying to work out where the UK fits into Europe.
For all the talk of continued co-operation, the practicalities need attention. The “forward presence” of Nato troops in the Baltic states (with Britain and Germany in leading roles) has just been revealed to be undermined by poor kit provision among other logistical imperfections.
I suspect one reason Merkel dwelt in her recent Davos speech on the need for Germany to step up to more responsibility in world affairs is that she is aware this is the great unfulfilled promise of her leadership. “We have a lot of work ahead of us,” she announced in her laconic way. The next month in Germany’s choppy politics will determine how much time she has left to take on that task. Much of her fate is now in the hands of foot soldiers of a rival party — and a protégé who looks every bit as determined as the younger Angela Merkel.
Anne McElvoy is senior editor at The Economist. Her series British Socialism: The Grand Tour airs daily this week on Radio 4