Europe is unlikely to be in 2022 what it was in 2021. The empress of the continent – Angela Merkel – after 16 uninterrupted years as Germany’s chancellor – stepped down from her position in December, as pre-announced.
Without her leadership, her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) lost the general elections in September. This ushered in a coalition government spearheaded by the Social Democratic Party (SPD), with Olaf Sholtz as her successor.
Germany is the economic powerhouse of Europe. Over this key industrialised nation, Merkel, the first woman to occupy the post of chancellor, governed with equanimity, efficiency and fairness, which many of her opponents found difficult to fathom.
Indeed, as head of a right-of-centre party, she undertook the extraordinary step of welcoming 800,000 refugees from Syria. Her own party was uncomfortable with this; but her compassion prevailed, so much so that she was re-elected even after this in 2017, albeit by a lesser margin.
The final four years of her innings as head of the government witnessed the unusual but not unprecedented phenomenon of a grand alliance of the left and the right, with SPD sharing power with her. In fact, Sholtz was the finance minister in that government.
Merkel will maintain an office in central Berlin, the German capital, and may not retire altogether. A role as elder stateswoman cannot be ruled out.
She told a prominent news agency: “I can see myself regularly speaking out about the connection between our prosperity, research and innovation, but I am sure I won’t be doing any scientific work (a reference to her previous career as a chemist).”
Sholtz is described as a male version of Merkel. Low profile and un-abrasive, he quietly gets on with the job – very much in the German character, if one discounts the aberration of one Adolf Hitler in the 1930s and 1940s.
Following in Merkel’s footsteps, Sholtz embarked on his first foreign trip to France, which with Germany constitute the controllers of the European Union (EU).
Sholtz backs enhanced EU integration and upgraded European sovereignty, which tally with French President Emmanual Macron’s views. But their immediate challenge is to counter Russian President Vladimir Putin’s raised rhetoric on defence and security in eastern Europe, not to mention consider a response if Moscow escalates gas supplies to China at the expense of western Europe. Already, energy prices in the EU are going through the roof.
While Christian Lindner of the Free Democrats holds the finance portfolio, for the first time in German history, the foreign, interior and defence ministries are headed by women – in a bold statement of gender equality.
Nancy Faesar of SPD is interior minister. Christine Lembrecht, also of SPD, is defence minister. And Annalena Baerbock of the Green Party, who speaks fluent English, is the foreign minister.
There is expectation of broad continuity in Germany’s foreign policy under the new ‘traffic lights’ (red of SPD, green of the Green Party and yellow of Free Democrats) administration.
Politico magazine wrote: “One of Baerbock’s challenges will be to put a Green imprint on foreign policy, where her party has taken a tougher line (than the CDU-SPD government) on China and Russia.”
She being a firm human rights advocate, her stance on recent attacks on Christians and Muslims in India is being keenly watched.
Macron faces his country’s electorate in April in a re-election bid. Coincidentally, the last four months of his current term will coincide with France’s presidency of the EU Council in the six-month rotating system for holding this post.
In effect, in the New Year, Macron will not merely be intensifying his campaign for a second term – which in French politics sometimes tends to get nationalistic – but also guide the destiny of the EU, which is a diplomatic role. It will be interesting to see how he walks the tight rope.
Xenophobic racism, immigration and Covid-19 are likely to dominate the French election campaign. Recent opinion polls signify that the Far Right could be slightly fading in voters’ esteem, which might strengthen the right-of-centre Gaullists’ candidate Valerie Pecresse. Le Monde reckoned Macron played ‘the card of empathy’ with the electorate in an interview on the widely watch TV channel TF1.
The EU got off to a slow start in terms of vaccinating its people against Covid-19. But it has ended the year comfortably placed under the leadership of the European Commission (administrative wing of the union) President Ursula von der Leyen. But in addition to tensions with Russia, her problems include tackling constitutional conflicts with member states like Poland and Hungary, differences with Turkey and carving out a new nuclear deal with Iran.