Transatlantic Take

The Merkel Legacy and the Post-Merkel Challenges

September 21, 2021
Photo credit: Alexandros Michailidis /
In the final week of the electoral campaign for Germany’s parliament, the consequences of the potential outcomes for the country’s partners and neighbors are simultaneously significant and unclear.

The leading chancellor candidates—Olaf Scholz from the Social Democrats and Armin Laschet from Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats—have in their respective way positioned themselves as her successor and offered a steady path forward. Meanwhile the Greens, currently in third position in the polls, some way behind the two leading parties, promise change and transformation. In the end, two of these three parties will most likely have to join forces to form a government, probably in coalition with one smaller party. The eventual constellation of governing parties will be consequential in shaping how the EU responds to today’s most important challenges. Below, GMF experts set out what is at stake for France, Poland, the EU, and Germany’s China policy.

France Sees 16 Years of Strategic Stalling

Martin Quencez, fellow and deputy director of GMF’s Paris office

For 16 years, Angela Merkel has been a symbol of stability and continuity in the European political landscape. At the end of her tenure, however, one cannot help but think that this very stability has also prevented Germany from embracing much-needed changes in the strategic and security realm. Since 2005, the European geopolitical environment has fundamentally changed: multiple crises in the eastern and southern neighborhoods and the evolution of the transatlantic relationship have required European countries to rethink the defense of their interests. Yet, Merkel has failed to lead the necessary transformation of Germany’s strategic debate and security policies.

Despite Merkel’s repeated calls for Europeans to “take more responsibilities,” notably during the Trump presidency, Germany has more often than not been an obstacle to change. At the conceptual level, and while many European countries took a clear stance in favor or against European strategic autonomy, Merkel has remained ambivalent and tried to agree with all sides at the same time. In terms of capabilities, Germany continues to punch below its weight despite the constant pressure from the United States, France, and Poland among others

While recent developments in Hong Kong, Belarus, Lebanon, Tunisia, and Afghanistan directly affect the international order as well as the stability of Europe and its neighborhoods, it is telling that the elections that close the Merkel era have been impervious to foreign and strategic issues.

Looking Ahead to EU Investment and the China Challenge

In the short term, France is primarily worried that Germany’s new government will not be in place quickly. Months-long negotiations to reach a coalition, like in 2017, would hinder France’s ambitious agenda for its forthcoming presidency of the Council of the EU. Having a new chancellor in place in Berlin with a clear mandate by January is therefore the first hope of the French government, which aims to show that the EU can initiate and deliver important reforms.

From a policy perspective, the composition of the next German government will affect most of France’s foreign and European policy priorities. From climate change to digital transformation, security and migration, Paris understands that Berlin’s support for or opposition to its agenda is one of the most significant variables. Germany’s influence may be particularly critical with regard to the EU recovery plan and to the redefinition of the Europe-China relationship.

For France, the recovery plan agreed in 2020 is meant to open a new era for EU economic investments and solidarity. While the coronavirus pandemic led member states to loosen the Stability and Growth Pact rules and to allow massive public investments in order to strengthen competitiveness, France has been clear that the experience should not be a “one-time deal.” Many in Germany, especially among the Free Democrats and parts of the Christian Democrats, disagree. The composition of the next governing coalition will therefore directly impact the future of this economic reform.

Germany is also likely to be the most important factor for the future of the EU’s policy toward China. While France is currently satisfied by the partner-competitor-rival approach of the EU, a more robust response to China’s economic and security actions lies ahead. In government, the Greens party would likely push the EU to address Beijing’s human-rights violations and political influence, and seek cooperation with France in that regard. Other parties that might favor a softer approach to China would make it more difficult for France to advance more strategic positioning at the EU level. 

Poland Bids Farewell to the “Nord Stream Chancellor”

Michal Baranowski, director of GMF’s Warsaw office

Given the importance of Germany for Poland, and the likely big shift in German politics after Chancellor Angela Merkel leaves office, it is curious to see that the elections do not feature more prominently in the Polish public debate. In part this is because the multitude of possible coalitions makes it hard for pundits to pithily describe possible outcomes. But equally important is the assessment that whoever emerges victorious in Berlin is unlikely to significantly change the difficult dynamics in Polish-German relations. There are deep divisions between Warsaw and Berlin on key policy questions, such as energy or security and defense, but also on fundamental European values. In addition, Germany has become a topic of domestic politics, with criticizing Germany and sometimes even Germany-bashing, now a feature in Polish election campaigns.

Many of the dynamics are connected to Merkel. Coming from the former East Germany and the daughter of a Protestant pastor, she was seen by many as a leader of Germany who could best understand Poland and Eastern Europe. But Merkel’s recent farewell trip to Warsaw, during which, in an unprecedented move, President Andrzej Duda did not find time to meet her, illustrates the depth of skepticism toward the chancellor, especially in government circles. The official reason was a scheduling conflict but the real reason was Merkel’s determination to finalize the Nord Stream 2 project over the fierce objections of Poland, Ukraine, and countries across Central Europe. In the end, from the perspective of the ruling Law and Justice Party, Merkel is seen as “Ms. Nord Stream 2,” more than anything else. This is how deeply the project has impacted the trust between the countries at the end of her tenure.

Looking Ahead to Germany’s Russia and NATO Posture

The policy of the next government in Berlin will be a key factor for Poland’s security, prosperity, and place in the EU. Merkel and her government resisted ideas coming from France for creating a multispeed EU and keeping the EU together. The next chancellor, especially if the Social Democrats win, is likely to be much more open to proposals from Paris on a range of ideas from strategic autonomy to a more multispeed EU. This will clearly impact the future shape of the EU and Poland’s place in it. With a simmering debate in Warsaw about “Polexit,” this is likely to be a very explosive mixture.

The second key issue from the Polish perspective will be Germany’s place within NATO and relations with the United States. Even though Germany has been spending more on defense, at currently around €50 billion a year this still significantly below the NATO commitment of 2 percent of GDP. Beyond this blunt metric lies a clearly insufficient readiness of the Bundeswehr and problems with modernization that make Germany’s forces not capable enough, given its central role in NATO. All of this is very worrying from the perspective of Warsaw. The issue of Germany’s participation in nuclear sharing is also fundamental when it comes to its place in NATO – and that in turn is key for Warsaw. If the skepticism of nuclear sharing of the Social Democrats or Greens becomes the policy of the new government, this would pose fundamental questions not only for the United States but also for Poland.

The third and key issue for Poland will be Germany’s policy toward Russia—as always for the countries squeezed between the two. Merkel was responsible for maintaining EU sanctions after Russia’s attack on Ukraine and annexation of Crimea. On the other hand, she did everything she could to complete the Nord Stream 2 project, binding Germany and Russia’s Gazprom for decades to come. The possibility of Germany’s closer relations with Russia, especially under a government led by the Social Democrats, is what worries Warsaw the most—especially if this came in the context of transatlantic tensions, questions over German security and defense policy, and greater German-French alignment within the EU.

Merkel’s Legacy of EU Trust Building

Corinna Horst, senior fellow and Guido Goldman director of Leadership Programs at GMF

According to a recent poll, EU citizens view Germany as a trustworthy, pro-European power. This is thanks to Angela Merkel’s leadership during the last 16 years. Her biggest success is her ability to listen, weigh options, and search for compromises between competing interests. While frustrating to some, this has diminished other member states’ fear of German power. And it kept the EU together through several extraordinary moments, from the migration crisis to the coronavirus pandemic, a budget and recovery fund package deal, and avoiding a breakup over the issue of rule of law with Hungary and Poland.

Yet, to meet Europeans’ expectations, Merkel’s successor will need to build on her approach with a leadership style that keeps this trust but leads on some core challenges, including fixing the democratic deficit within some member states and strengthening the EU’s global role at a time where the United States’ priorities are shifting.

A more strategic German policy—instead of Merkel’s pragmatic but at times shortsighted crisis management—and a willingness to address how EU institutions work might produce not only a more inclusive, accountable EU but also a Germany that can build on Merkel’s legacy and live up to expectations.

Berlin’s Influence over whether the EU Can Lead

According to European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, the EU is well positioned to lead on matters such as health, climate, and digitalization—all policy challenges that do not stop at national borders. And the EU also has an obligation to be an active player in global affairs. In all these issues, Germany’s role is crucial as the biggest member state in terms of population and economic power.

Germany’s elections campaign has not offered an idea what the EU can expect next. The country has an ambivalent relationship with the EU and this is particularly visible at such times. Debt, treaty reforms, refugee policies, the EU in the world—all core topics in Brussels—have barely been mentioned. From what one can gather, neither leading chancellor candidate, the Social Democrats’ Olaf Scholz and the Christian Democrats’ Armin Laschet, would be a driving force for change in Germany or the EU. The Greens’ Annalena Baerbock is the only one who has campaigned as a change candidate and responded more directly to the concerns of younger generations in Germany about climate change.

However, it is not really who is the chancellor that matters but the eventual coalition of parties that will govern together. This time, there may be up to five coalition options and until one is in office Merkel might stick around for a bit longer as acting chancellor.

The CAI and the Legacy of Merkel’s China Policy

Mareike Ohlberg, senior fellow in GMF’s Asia program

The biggest failure of Angela’s Merkel tenure as chancellor has been the course signified by the EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI) agreed at the end of 2020, which is a failure in many ways. At the time, much of the criticism focused on the lack of coordination with the incoming Biden administration. More than that, however, the CAI is a failure of European coordination on China. According to media reports, Merkel and France’s President Emmanuel Macron stayed on the decisive CAI-related video call with President Xi Jinping in late 2020 after European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and President of the European Council Charles Michel had left. Whatever successful European coordination on China may look like, it is not German-French unilateralism. The CAI also failed quite literally as it was put in the freezer within less than three months after China sanctioned members of the European Parliament. While there is always a chance that it will be brought back, this looks unlikely to happen soon.

On a higher level, the trajectory of the CAI is emblematic of Germany’s approach toward China of “having your cake and eating it too.” Merkel’s government has hoped to maintain good relations with China amid increasingly difficult circumstances, and when this became more difficult it has tended to put the blame on the United States for supposedly forcing Germany and European countries to choose between Washington and Beijing. However, this fails to recognize that not all parts of this relationship are controlled by Germany and its Western allies, and that China has played a role in its deterioration. A better China policy means Germany has to do more to take Chinese agency into account.

The Partner/Rival Challenge

The most important issue facing the next German government on China is how to manage more effectively the three aspects of the relationship as defined in the European Union’s China strategy: partnership, competition, and rivalry. Even if the EU tried to pursue a policy of “cooperation on Monday, partnership on Tuesday, and rivalry on Wednesday,” Beijing has already made it clear that it will not tolerate a clean separation. “If you want us to cooperate with you on climate change, you will need to drop all criticism of us in other areas” is the implicit Chinese response. Aside from the fact that this will be unacceptable to large parts of German society, Germany risks a situation in which it holds itself back across a range of important issues in return for very weak promises from the Chinese side that do not strongly mitigate climate change. A more successful German China policy will need to take into account that “partner, competitor, and rival” cannot be neatly separated.

The solution is not to capitulate to China’s demands to abstain from all criticism of its human rights violations, and thereby underscore Western complicity in this, but rather to acknowledge the “rival” part of the relationship more strongly and factor that into areas of cooperation. This does not mean treating China as an enemy, but it does mean devising smarter strategies that acknowledge its own agency and the goals of the Chinese Communist Party in the relationship. A more decisive stance from the next German government will also be vital in shaping EU China policy and will form the basis for more successful transatlantic cooperation on China