News analysis

Merkel's challenge: Holding the Europe project together

A pictorial record of German Chancellor Angela Merkel's years in office: (top row, from left) 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008 (second row from left) 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, and (third row from left) 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016.
A pictorial record of German Chancellor Angela Merkel's years in office: (top row, from left) 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008 (second row from left) 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, and (third row from left) 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

BERLIN • German Chancellor Angela Merkel has chosen to face perhaps the biggest test of her career: defending the European and transatlantic status quo amid huge uncertainty for both.

Dr Merkel's decision, announced on Sunday, to seek another term in next year's federal elections means she must anchor a Western alliance shaken by Mr Donald Trump's US election victory, and bind together a European Union in which Germany has forged its post-war identity but which now risks breaking apart.

With US President Barack Obama stepping down next year, Dr Merkel stands as the West's last great hope for liberal democracy - a mantle she must assume from a position of diminished standing at home, and which may prove too much. To succeed on the international stage in a fourth term, Dr Merkel must first heal divisions over her open-door refugee policy that has alienated the Bavarian wing of her nationwide conservative alliance.

  • POLL SHOWING VOTERS IN FAVOUR OF ANOTHER TERM FOR MERKEL

  • 55% This month

  • 42% In August

A poll published on Sunday put her Christian Democrats on around 33 per cent, down some 10 percentage points from the middle of last year.

Her likely coalition partners, the Social Democrats, are some 10 points behind that. The same poll showed 55 per cent of voters favoured another term for Dr Merkel, up from 42 per cent in August. Dr Merkel will campaign for next September's election in an increasingly fractured political landscape, in which the far-right Alternative for Germany is likely to enter the national Parliament for the first time. The German leader oversaw Europe's absorption last year of the biggest influx of migrants since World War II, having only just steered the bloc through the euro zone crisis.

A pictorial record of German Chancellor Angela Merkel's years in office: (top row, from left) 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008 (second row from left) 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, and (third row from left) 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016.
A pictorial record of German Chancellor Angela Merkel's years in office: (top row, from left) 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008 (second row from left) 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, and (third row from left) 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Dr Merkel must do more than survive and muddle through if she is to master the challenges of a fourth term. If she retains power next year, as is expected, she will need to galvanise the European project at a time when the EU executive has embarked on a bitter row with Berlin by pressing it to spend more to lift euro zone growth.

The push from Brussels, where Germany has tried to foist its fiscal discipline on other EU members, signals the limits of Dr Merkel's capacity to lead in Europe, where her open-door migrant policy has proved especially unpopular with eastern neighbours.

After Britain's June 23 vote to leave the EU, Dr Merkel must retain close ties with Britain without cutting a Brexit deal that tempts others facing a sluggish economy and worries about immigration to leave too.

"Europe is in danger of falling apart," French Premier Manuel Valls has said. "So Germany and France have a huge responsibility."

But the rise of the far-right National Front will also leave the next French president ruling over a deeply divided country that can no longer play an equal role in the Franco-German tandem that has traditionally driven Europe.

REUTERS

VIDEO
Watch Angela Merkel announcing she will run for a fourth term. http://str.sg/4Mn6

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 22, 2016, with the headline 'Merkel's challenge: Holding the Europe project together'. Print Edition | Subscribe