Guest: Ramiro Villapadierna, columnist and writer on Central European affairs and former Executive Director of the Instituto Cervantes
Angela Merkel will step down after 16 years in Germany’s top job. In a country used to coalitions as a symbol of stability, Social Democrat Olaf Scholz’s narrow victory now opens the door to a long negotiating process.
Merkel’s departure from power leaves a huge hole in Europe. Merkel was named ‘Most Powerful Woman in the World’ by Forbes and considered Europe’s unofficial leader. What happens next? This week, Ramiro Villapadierna, a longstanding Europe analyst and former member of the Spanish Embassy in Berlin, joins Altamar to explain what life after Merkel looks like. Villapadierna was the former Executive Director of the Instituto Cervantes and has been a longtime Berlin, Vienna, and Prague-based journalist and commentator, affiliated with international media and political institutes.
“Whoever follows Merkel will have, in any event, big shoes to fill since they should match Merkel’s strengths, like her statesmanship and presence, management skills, while also making up for her very significant weaknesses, like the lack of strategic and ambitious vision for Europe,” says Villapadierna. But who could be up to the challenge? There may be a winner following the recent German elections, but in a country heavily dependent on coalitions, it’ll be a few months an agreement is reached. “With only a difference of 1.6% of turnout among the big center right and center left parties who are used to ruling Germany alone or together, the political spectrum is wider now and more fragile than ever,” explains Villapadierna.
So who are the people to look out for? The Social Democrats winner, Olaf Scholz, outvoted Merkel’s CDU party, the Christian Democrats, by a narrow margin and now we wait to see what happens. But as coalitions and agreements are being made, who should we really keep our eye on? “As some observers say, it’s someone else who might end up with the most influence. This is the Free Democrats leader, Christian Lindner, who could be the finance minister in the final coalition. He’s seen as the next big player in the global economy,” points out Villapadierna.
With a new government comes new expectations and new problems. “What are the biggest domestic challenges facing the next German government, and what are the new government’s metrics of success inside Germany?” asks Altamar’s Muni Jensen. “The successor to the admirable Chancellor Merkel will face bigger problems. Merkel’s government has neglected too much nationally and internationally. While Germany got away with it, and the country has been prosperous and stable, trouble is brewing…The country needs really meaningful economic reforms. First of all, an overhaul of the tax system, which are a burden for the economy. The EU’s fiscal policies also pose a huge challenge ahead,” answers Villapadierna.
You would expect to see more excitement about such a transformative moment for the country. But media outlets—both domestically and internationally—focused headlines about how unexciting and boring this year’s elections were. “But a very exciting piece of news is the loss of the far right. The far right Alternatif fur Deutschland went from 13% to 10.5%. This seems very different from what is happening in the United States,” points out Altamar’s Peter Schechter. “It was also exciting to see powerful Merkel quietly leaving the floor and also her successor unable to stand in her big shoes. And I think that’s also exciting to see the extreme party losing ground to the center. This includes ex-Communists also as well as the Nationalist Party (AFD),” adds on Villapadierna.
Merkel was in power for so long that German youth is often dubbed the “Merkel-generation”. Young people never knew another leader. “What helped [Merkel] make roads in diplomatic talks was that she had very little ego for herself. She could keep it under control. And she could profit also off her motherly image of concern for the common good, which might also be a projection we had on her. However, I would say her greatest success is probably to have been able to grow up to be the leader of the free world in a moment of real scarcity of leaders,” answers Villapadierna.
Who will fill the large void that Merkel leaves in her wake? Many believe that French President Emmanuel Macron is vying for the position of most important European leader. But our guest wasn’t too optimistic. “In any event, he’s the president of the bloc with the strongest military and nuclear power. But as a leader, he lacks gravity and authority. And importantly, he’s up for reelection in six months,” says Villapadierna and explains, “For me, the Italian prime minister instead might be the only European leader who is even close to matching Merkel in stature. Mario Draghi could potentially hold the EU together as he already did in the European Central Bank in a very difficult moment. He could hold together the EU as Merkel did, and he could even push the EU forward in ways Merkel didn’t. What gives Draghi this type of authority is his technocratic and diplomatic manner. And both leaders clearly have had their egos under control. Draghi, as the big European Central Banker, did a lot at the time to save the single currency from a collapse on the markets,” explains Villapadierna. Want to learn more about what a post Merkel future looks like? Find out more by listening to the latest Altamarepisode, available wherever you get your podcasts. You can download the episode here.
Image Source: The Chicago Council on Foreign Affairs / Reuters