As Merkel exits the political stage, who will speak for a united Europe?

by | Mar 23, 2021

This is the year that we will no longer have Angela Merkel on the world stage. Back in 2018, she announced that she would step down this fall, after serving as the chancellor of Germany for 15 years. During her tenure, she’s seen many leaders come and go: four American presidents, four French presidents, five United Kingdom prime ministers. Throughout her tenure, she’s been a model for stability and the de facto leader of Europe, as she navigated crises from the European Debt Crisis and Arab Spring to the Syrian Refugee Crisis and Brexit, among others.

With Merkel exiting the stage, who will fill her shoes? Here are the chief contenders:

·        The next German chancellor

There are two main candidates vying to replace Merkel in the September 26 national election. Armin Laschet, recently won the election to become the chairman of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU). He has a long career in politics, first being elected to the German Bundestag in 1994 and later serving as a cabinet minister and prime minister of North Rhine-Westphalia, his state. He is an ally of Merkel, and his election is a signal that the party wants to continue her policies and approach. Laschet is widely viewed as a centrist who can bridge the factions to create a governing coalition.

Despite Laschet serving as party head, he’s not necessarily a shoe-in to become chancellor. Markus Söder, the head of the Christian Social Union (CSU) which operates and coordinates with the CDU, is leading recent public opinion polls. Söder serves as the head of government in Bavaria. He has taken a tougher stand on immigration and even demanded that crucifixes be placed in public buildings.

There are other candidates such as Olaf Scholz, leader of the Social Democratic Party, who are vying for the chancellorship. But the CDU-CSU candidate is expected to win the office.

Yet whomever becomes the next chancellor will not be able to fill the void of Merkel –– at least not in the short run. Merkel’s elevated stature on the world stage made her Europe’s singular and most important leader.

·         Emmanuel Macron

The president of France may become the de facto leader of Europe by default; France is the European Union’s second largest economy. Macron has led France since May 2017 and has an ambitious vision and agenda for Europe, pushing for “strategic autonomy.” He believes the EU should increase spending on security and defense, and act more as a political union, not just an economic one. With Merkel’s departure, Macron may grow more outspoken regarding his policies and priorities. Besides, any new German chancellor will have to spend the initial months shoring up political support and tending to domestic affairs. Still, Macron is up for reelection in the spring of 2022, and currently he is lagging behind Prime Minister Edouard Philippe in opinion polls.

·         European Union leaders

The leaders of several European Union institutions may try to fill Merkel’s void. These include Charles Michel, president of the European Council; Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission; David Sassoli, president of the European Parliament; or even Christine Lagarde, president of the European Central Bank. All of these individuals are institutionalists who can surely articulate the values and priorities of the EU. But none can claim the same sweeping electoral mandate as the leader of a large sovereign country such as France, Germany, or even Italy.

Merkel has been a strong, steady leader for Europe, which has long been a fractious union of more than two dozen countries. To dramatize the singular power Merkel — an opera lover — I created an opera that highlights how she navigated the European debt crisis with reluctance yet dexterity. Like any good opera, Europe’s next primary protagonist will have a grand stage on which to perform.

[This article was previously published in MarketWatch]

Kabir Sehgal is a multi-Grammy Award winner and the creator of Angela’s Ring: An Opera Revue of the European Debt Crisis.