There definitely comes a time where a fresh pair of eyes and fresh leadership would be good.” Those are the wise words of David Cameron, when asked whether he’d be running for a third term as Prime Minister just before the 2015 election.
Now into her fourth term as German Chancellor, it has taken Angela Merkel rather longer to reach the same conclusion. But she finally got there this week, announcing that she would not seek re-election as leader of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), and would step down as Chancellor in 2021. Many expect her to depart sooner than that.
For a woman who has governed for so long that her name is sometimes used as shorthand for Germany itself, Merkel is a divisive figure.
Supporters can point to the strong German economy and the survival of the Eurozone through numerous crises, particularly when it comes to Greece.
Opponents can argue that Germany’s good fortunes are more thanks to relaxed monetary policy from the European Central Bank than anything Merkel has done, and that it would perhaps have been better for everyone if Greece had crashed out of the euro in 2010.
But it is her 2015 decision to open Germany’s borders to one million migrants that has provoked the most contention: evidence of a true global stateswoman putting human rights and morality over political advantage, or the rash reaction of an insecure leader and a move that has torn apart her party, country, and continent?
Regardless of how history will view her, in political terms, Merkel miscalculated – the anti-immigration backlash was stronger than she thought, straining her governing coalition and creating oxygen for the far-right.
Now facing opposition from both her centre-left coalition partner and the right wing of her own party, the alliance she has led is hemorrhaging support across the country, most recently in a string of disappointing regional elections. It is not hard to see why she decided to step down.
The race to fill the power vacuum is already on, with Merkel’s preferred successor fending off competition from wings of the party less favourable towards her agenda. But whoever takes over as CDU leader, the question for the rest of the world is how Merkel’s retirement from the fray impacts the EU.
Tempting as it is from a British perspective to see everything through the lens of Brexit, this really doesn’t change that much.
Merkel was never going to be the pragmatic German ally that some moderate Leavers and Remainers hoped would cut through the messy and divisive negotiating process. Her failure to hand Cameron anything usable in his bid for reform just before the EU Referendum was proof of that.
Whether too weak politically or too cautious about upsetting the delicate balance in Brussels, Merkel always put safeguarding her vision of the EU first.
More interesting is where this leaves the other challenges currently putting the EU under immense strain.
The integrity of national borders remains a lightning rod across the bloc, with anti-immigration groups gaining ground from Hungary to Italy to Sweden; banking crises loom; europhilic sentiment is weakening in the eastern states – and the most conciliatory policy the president of the European Commission can think of is a plan to allow members to set their own daylight savings time.
Strong leadership, a change in tack, and a determination to stand up to the ideological integrationists are all badly needed.
As the other half of the French-German duopoly, liberal EU poster-boy President Emmanuel Macron may think that Merkel’s departure bodes well for him. But he has his own domestic demons to contend with, and there is no guarantee he will be able to maintain dominance as the balance of power shifts.
With European parliamentary elections in May 2019, anti-EU factions in all member states have an opportunity to cement their positions as Brussels struggles to confront its identity crisis.
As for Merkel herself, her intention is clearly to stay until 2021, passing the baton on and ensuring stability, for both her country and her reputation.
Again, there’s an echo of Cameron, who also sought to choreograph his departure by fending off eurosceptics and then smoothly governing on for the next four years. It didn’t quite work out that way.
A similar legacy of chaos and division looms for Merkel. For a woman who always seemed to have a lecture ready for wayward EU states on the consequences of their actions, Germany’s leading lady may be about to learn that lesson for herself.