By Paul Carrel
Announcing on Sunday she will seek a fourth term in office, Germany’s Angela Merkel faces perhaps the biggest test of her career: defending the European and transatlantic status quo amid huge uncertainty for both.
Already chancellor for 11 years, she must now anchor a western alliance shaken by Donald Trump’s U.S. election victory, and bind together a European Union in which Germany has forged its post-war identity but which now risks breaking apart.
What is more, with the imminent departure of U.S. President Barack Obama, Merkel alone 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.
“If she chooses to continue, she will have big burdens,” Obama told reporters during a farewell visit to Berlin last week. “I wish I could be there to lighten her load somewhat, but she is tough.”
She will need to be. To succeed on the international stage in a fourth term, Merkel must first heal divisions over her open-door refugee policy that has alienated the Bavarian wing of her nation-wide conservative alliance.
Polls put her Christian Democrats (CDU/CSA) on around 33 percent, down some 10 percentage points from summer last year.
Merkel will campaign for next September’s election in an increasingly fractured political landscape, in which the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) is likely to enter the national parliament for the first time next year.
Her likely coalition partners are the Social Democrats (SPD), who are some 10 points behind her conservatives and with whom she now rules. But the AfD’s rise makes coalition building more complicated and voters also risk becoming tired of her.
“Boredom weakens you, even makes for ridicule, just as it did in Kohl’s fourth and final term,” said Josef Joffe, editor of German weekly Die Zeit, with reference to Merkel’s mentor, former longtime Chancellor Helmut Kohl.
Named Time Magazine’s Person of the Year in 2015, Merkel oversaw Europe’s absorption last year of the biggest influx of migrants to the continent since World War Two, having only just steered the bloc through the euro zone crisis.
“She is someone who finds satisfaction in all these challenges,” one official close to Merkel, speaking on condition of anonymity, said of Lutheran pastor’s daughter who grew up in communist East Germany.
Yet Merkel must do more than survive and muddle through if she is to master the challenges a fourth term would bring.
If she retains power next year, as is widely expected, Merkel 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 Merkel’s capacity to lead in Europe, where her open-door migrant policy has proved especially unpopular with eastern neighbours.
“Merkel could not impose her will on the distribution of refugees, nor on reform-minded fiscal discipline in Club Med,” said Joffe, referring to southern European EU members.
The fiscal policy row belies bigger geopolitical pressures.
Britain’s June 23 vote to leave the EU opens the way for a country to leave the bloc for the first time. As Europe’s most powerful leader, 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 Prime Minister Manuel Valls said in Berlin on Thursday. “So Germany and France have a huge responsibility.”
The rise of Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Front will 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.
More immediately, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi risks losing a referendum on constitutional reform next month on which he has staked his political future.
This leaves Germany as a reluctant hegemon at the centre of a fractured Europe into which Russia is seeking to project its power. Merkel has said Moscow may try to influence Germany’s 2017 elections through cyber attacks and disinformation.
Germany’s pacifist instincts and modest military capabilities limit Merkel’s ability to hold together the NATO alliance, whose members Trump slammed during the U.S. election campaign for not paying enough for their own defence.
Merkel massaged down expectations about what she can do.
Announcing her candidacy, she told reporters: “No person alone – even with the greatest experience – can change things in Germany, Europe and the world for the better, and certainly not the chancellor of Germany.”