Only when Merkel steps down will Europe be able to solve its problems

Populism is on the rise, the old order is crumbling and the greatest exponent of centrism is on the way out. It's time for the EU to understand that this really is the end of an era

Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel attends a news conference with Poland's Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki during a meeting in Warsaw, Poland, November 2, 2018. Agencja Gazeta/Slawomir Kaminski via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. POLAND OUT. NO COMMERCIAL OR EDITORIAL SALES IN POLAND
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Angela Merkel has faced three American presidents, plus four leaders apiece from France and Britain during her time as German chancellor.

It would take a full-scale data project to figure out how many European counterparts she has gladhanded since 2005, when her tenure began.

Last week, Mrs Merkel announced the first stage in a phased retirement plan. She will give up the leadership of the centre-right Christian Democratic Union at a congress in December. While she has held out the prospect of remaining chancellor until 2021, when the next German election is due, few believe she can hang on that long.

The sheer number of European leaders Mrs Merkel has outlasted illustrates beyond all doubt that her stepping down marks the end of an era. Indeed, her demise highlights the ongoing collapse of European centrism. This moment is only likely to accelerate the chaos within the continent's politics.

Already, even while she has acted as the stolid heart of Europe’s leadership, much has fractured.

When France elected the moderate leader Emmanuel Macron last year, it did so at the cost of destroying the franchise of both its main political parties, the Republican right and the Socialist left. Italy has installed a new populist coalition government. The Spanish political scene has splintered badly. Very few countries in Europe still have the political stability that was taken as a given when she came to power.

The explanation lies in an event that Mrs Merkel’s biographers are likely to debate for decades to come − her decision to open Germany’s borders in 2015.

In time, a consensus is likely to find that her real failure was not the decision to allow hundreds of thousands of people from Iraq and Syria to find refuge from ISIS. The problem lay in her pledge “Wir schaffen das” (“We can do this”), which was palpably not fulfilled by her or her government. Social tensions within Germany have grown steadily since this moment, as can be seen in a growing far-right presence and last week’s announcement that refugees seeking asylum are to receive mandatory classes on sexual ethics and equality rights in Germany.

The failure of Mrs Merkel’s government to provide an adequate framework for asylum seekers who made their way to Germany was felt around Europe. Growing disquiet within the country contributed to the idea that the EU was becoming a migratory free-for-all, which, in turn, proved an important factor in the British Brexit vote in 2016. Other resentments festered too, most notably the long nightmare of austerity in Greece.

Mrs Merkel’s economic legacy is surprisingly fragile. Germany’s recent multi-coloured governments made little pretence at reform. The chancellor coasted nicely on cuts to social welfare made by her predecessor Gerhard Schröder. The country’s competitive advantage within the Eurozone has been greatly assisted by the European Central Bank. As Europe’s largest economy, it has been able to sway the regulator’s monetary policy.

The most powerful country in Europe has seen its position steadily entrenched, its own good fortune boosted at the expense of the rest. Difficulties predominate, even in countries with industries capable of competing with the German powerhouse.

A day after Mrs Merkel’s announcement, President Emmanuel Macron announced that he would take a four-day break from Paris to recharge his batteries. Once the object of great fanfare, the Macron reform agenda appears stalled. His labour and welfare reforms, introduced last year, have caused his popularity to plunge to record lows. Then Berlin squashed his plans to reform and further centralise the EU.

Things are no better in Rome, where a legacy of state debt has defeated successive governments. The country’s new populist government is trying to kickstart growth with extra spending. Brussels is standing firm against any and all departures from its orthodoxy, warning Rome of swingeing penalties if it proceeds with its budget proposals.

A style of consensus-building that has for years advanced European integration on a slow but steady path is no longer working. It has no greater proponent than the outgoing German chancellor, but now nationalist politicians have risen up in revolt in country after country. Meanwhile, those jockeying to succeed Mrs Merkel include members of a new cadre, with a far more strident outlook than hers.

Europe faces fundamental decisions in the next few years. It must either follow the logic of the currency union that created the euro, or regroup into a looser confederation of economic partners.

The outgoing German leader lacked the political will to take on that challenge, but time is pressing. Other leaders, perhaps her successor or even the bruised Mr Macron, must show the appetite to reshape the project.

Expect the pace to pick up only when Mrs Merkel vacates the chancellor’s residence in Berlin once and for all.