The EU after Merkel: Prospects for a more Assertive German Leadership

“Look at the world from other people’s perspectives as well.” This is how former German Chancellor Angela Merkel concluded her brief farewell speech during a high-level military ceremony that was held for only two other chancellors in history.

On December 2, Merkel was honored with a “Grand Tattoo” marking the end of her sixteen years of leadership. This was preceded by multiple ceremonies at the EU level, including in the European Council, where President Charles Michel referred to Merkel as embodying “a shining light of our European project” and “a compass” that has given the needed impetus for holding the EU together in troubling times.

The Merkel Era

As a recent European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) survey shows, many citizens across the EU see Germany’s leadership as a uniting force. Citizens with pro-European views are more likely to view Merkel’s role in a positive light. A plurality of those surveyed consider Germany a trustworthy partner able to lead the Union, especially on economic and financial issues but also issues of democracy and human rights. In fact, when asked who they would hypothetically choose as “president of the EU,” a vast majority of respondents picked Merkel over French President Emmanuel Macron, who is known for his daring proposals advocating increased integration.

The survey goes on to explain that it is not only Germany’s economic standing that generated this confidence but also particular features of Merkel’s leadership style, which was highly focused on preserving the status quo over two decades marked by multiple crisis situations. This crisis-driven landscape called for a conciliatory force, and Merkel arguably embodied it more than anyone. In EU-level discussions, the German chancellor refrained from pushing forward progressive proposals in areas where there was an evident lack of consensus among EU leaders. Rather, she served as a mediator aiming to find common ground amongst seemingly diverging perspectives and advocating for cautious steps rather than giant leaps forward.

This approach seemingly earned Germany a central role in overcoming the financial crisis of 2007 – 2008 and the migration crisis of 2015 at a time of increased scepticism towards the EU and other international organisations. This is not to say that international institutions are no longer being questioned by people. On the contrary, such scepticism is gradually leading to the erosion and disempowerment of these institutions, which represents “the biggest threat” globally, according to Merkel.

Still, as claimed by Politico, the way in which responses to challenges were presented to the wider public, more or less in line with reality, also contributed to Merkel’s high approval rates. For instance, in spite of her decision to admit a large number of refugees during the crisis of 2015, which is oftentimes viewed as a landmark decision, Merkel subsequently accepted a severe restriction of asylum rules in Germany, making it hard for people to stay and reunite with their families. What’s more, even though she is praised for confronting authoritarian leaders on human rights issues, Merkel was reluctant to propose sanctions on China and Russia, primarily due to their possible effects on German businesses. The fact that these underlying dynamics were subdued in the public’s eye contributed to significantly less controversy associated with Merkel as a political figure than with other well-known leaders.

Angela Merkel in the European Council building in Brussels, Belgium.
(Credit: Alexandros Michailidis /

An Evolving Environment

Even so, there is wide consensus among experts, EU leaders, and the wider public that the tenets of “Merkelism” provided much-needed stability. Yet, what exactly are the prospects for “Merkelism” surviving beyond Merkel’s role as chancellor?

Amid internal division over fundamental EU values, as well as external pressure impacting the development and integration of the Union, avoiding or concealing challenges may not be enough. Combating climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic are only two of these current challenges, which are provoking a shift from mere scepticism to nationalism. This growing individualism sows doubt in the EU project as a whole. It is against this evolving backdrop that Germany may need, and is presumably expected to, adopt a bolder stance.

The policy area of migration and asylum provides a deeper understanding of the EU setting post-Merkel. Paradoxically, even though these forms of human movement are a clear materialisation of interdependence, they are also the missing pieces in the European integration puzzle. Multilateralism, or “the transfer by national sovereign states of legitimacy and a degree of authority to international rules, principles and organisations,” is still largely absent in this policy area.

The handling of incoming migrants and asylum seekers is largely up to individual member states, which has resulted in tough limitations imposed on those seeking help. Moreover, since key EU regulations on the subject are unable to guarantee effective burden-sharing, member states are able to circumvent them. This is only one of the issues that may benefit from being actively promoted instead of cautiously brought into the discussion the way Germany under Merkel might have done.

Olaf Scholz, Germany’s new Chancellor, pictured here in June 2021.
(Credit: Alexandros Michailidis /

German Leadership under Scholz: Same or Different?

The prospects for this shift to occur are not as grim as one may initially think. The new German government, headed by Olaf Scholz, seems to understand the current dynamics and the resulting call for more progressivism. The government’s coalition agreement already hints at a more pronounced stance on key issues where progressive measures have been lacking.

Returning to migration and asylum, the government aims to encourage immigration and ensure additional rights for asylum seekers. The agreement also states that the new government seeks to make it easier for these categories of persons to enter the workforce, reunite with their families, achieve residential status, and ultimately citizenship. Although these proposed measures focus primarily on the German context, they will likely have a more widespread effect.

The progressive proposals of the Scholz government are likely to function as a model that will impact the course of EU-level discussions. What is less clear is whether this novel stance will manage to get everyone on board in working towards a common and more robust migration policy, or if the fears of division that persisted during the Merkel era will materialise. How will it affect other controversial matters of integration? Much more time is needed for a clear-cut answer.

Liviana-Michelle Strambeanu

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