On November 12th the New York Times published an article titled, Angela Merkel May Be the Liberal West’s Last Defender. It was just one of many articles proclaiming Angela Merkel the new leader of the Free World. Is this title deserved or is it mere hyperbole? Merkel herself has said the later, commenting that such talk was, “absurd and almost grotesque.” Merkel has good reasons not to proclaim herself a global savior for her country’s domestic politics, but she is wrong about the international world; the title does indeed fall to her.
Since 2005 Merkel has been a pillar of stability for Europe. She guided Europe through a series of crises beginning with the European Debt Crisis following the 2008 global financial meltdown, to the Russian annexation Crimea, and to the Migrant Crisis of 2015. In the face of Russian aggression in Ukraine, Merkel stepped into a leadership position to confront Moscow. Germany took the lead in cobbling together a sanctions regime of reluctant EU states to punish Moscow for its aggression. The Migrant Crisis saw Germany open its borders up to roughly a million asylum seekers fleeing war in Syria; a choice, though widely hailed abroad, cost her much at home.
Crisis after crisis has eroded the confidence of many in the European Project. This has widely been exploited by Eurosceptic, populist, and often xenophobic parties across the continent. In Hungary, Prime Minster Viktor Orbán champions illiberal democracy and in France, Marine Le Pen of the far-right National Front has used fear over a string of recent terror attacks to boost her popularity ahead of new year’s election. Far-right parties have surged to unprecedented levels in several countries and some have even become junior partners in parliamentary coalitions. The first major victory for these forces was the shocking referendum in which the United Kingdom voted to withdraw from the European Union earlier this year. However, events across the Atlantic could prove far more consequential.
President-elect Donald Trump who’s disdain for NATO was only matched by his admiration for Vladimir Putin on the campaign trail has cast doubt on much of the assumptions of the global order. Trump has mused that the United States would not come to the aid of the Baltics unless they “pay up”. A political ally of Trump has referred to Estonia as nothing more than “A suburb of St. Petersburg”. Trump’s pick for Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, the CEO of Exxon Mobile, who has deep ties with Russia and was awarded with the Russian Order of Friendship, further signals his alignment with Putin. If NATO is not a bulwark against Russian aggression then what is it? If Trump retreats to Fortress America what will be the fate of Europe?
Chancellor Merkel has begun to answer that question in her measured letter of congratulations to Trump in which she wrote “Germany and America are bound by common values — democracy, freedom, as well as respect for the rule of law and the dignity of each and every person, regardless of their origin, skin color, creed, gender, sexual orientation, or political views. It is based on these values that I wish to offer close cooperation, both with me personally and between our countries’ governments.” Those who have watched Trump’s authoritarian and illiberal signals could not help but see a stinging rebuke in the Chancellor’s preconditions for cooperation.
It would seem though that if Merkel wishes to remain a politician she must unsurprisingly play politics. On December 6th Merkel was reelected as the leader of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) at the party conference in Essen, where she pitched herself as an “anchor for stability”, extolling the strong economic gains under her leadership. Aware of the challenges on her right flank from the populist Alternative for Germany (AFD) and dissent within her party from her reaction to the refugee crisis, she pledged to ban the burqa in public spaces. This drew condemnation from many liberal commentators across the West, but this move was certainly necessary to shore up conservative support for her candidacy.
Even if Merkel succeeds in her reelection bid – which she seems likely to do – her task will not be an easy one. In Italy, Prime Minister Matteo Renzi resigned after a failed bid to amend the constitution created uncertainty for the future of Italian governance. In France, Francois Fillon won the Conservative party primary and seems to be the only candidate likely to be able to defeat Le Pen. Fillon, a who is a Thatcherite, would be well suited to work with Merkel on economic policy, but the self-described Gaullist desires rapprochement with Russia. This would complicate a common European security policy in the works. If Le Pen manages to continue the populist wave and wins the presidency, her demand for a Frexit could likely be the death knell to the entire European project. The Chancellor is likely to face an even more uncertain world in 2017, but if any woman is prepared to hold the EU together, it’s her, or so I hope.
Dennis Meaney is an Associate Editor at the Journal of Diplomacy and international Relations. He is a first-year graduate student at the School of Diplomacy and International Relations at Seton Hall University. He is specializing in Foreign Policy Analysis and the Middle East. He did his Undergraduate work at SUNY Oneonta, studying Political Science and History.
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