Germany is about to elect a new chancellor. Angela Merkel has been in power for nearly 16 years, having won four consecutive elections. Many argue that were it not for Merkel, the European Union would today be much weaker than it is. Others insist the outgoing German chancellor failed to effectively address severe structural weaknesses in the EU and her own country.

Most political analysts agree that Merkel is a committed believer in the value of the EU. Her negotiating skills were evident when she led discussions during the Greek debt crisis, despite the criticism that she promoted too much the doctrine of austerity.

Surrounded by various heads of member states who could not agree on dealing with the migrants’ problem, Merkel led the arduous task of relocating a million refugees fleeing wars in Syria and Afghanistan. The crisis management exercise was not painless. It led to the rise of the far-right Alternative fur Deutschland. Despite this, Merkel soldiered on and stuck to her values, refused to cave in to populist measures, and remained the most popular leader in Germany and the EU.

Merkel’s latest political achievement was her contribution to the EU’s rescue package to help member states avoid an economic depression due to COVID-10. Together with French President Emanuel Macron, she presented a plan to include debt-sharing among EU nations in the pandemic stimulus plan.

The German chancellor was also instrumental in brokering a peace deal between Ukraine and Russia. Merkel’s stance on the Nord Stream 2 oil pipeline was less successful as it has arguably brought Germany too close to Russia.

Europe today is very different from what it was when Merkel came to power. On the geopolitical front, Europe is fast losing its importance as a global leader, especially after the US is no longer such a convinced supporter of the transatlantic alliance. When Merkel is out of the political scene, many analysts fear that neither her successor nor any other European leader would have the gravitas and negotiating skills to resolve emerging EU and global challenges.

Germany itself needs to face up to its lack of investment in the last few decades. Digital backwardness, a problematic education system, ineffective and overlapping layers of government, and a lack of determination to decarbonise Germany’s heavy industry need to be addressed urgently.

Germany’s commitment to fiscal conservatism has deprived the country of investing in its infrastructure. If Germany is to lead the EU to meet the CO2 emissions by 2030, it must lead by investing heavily in cutting-edge environmental technology. It also needs to reform its education system and upgrade its crumbling transport infrastructure.

None of these objectives will be easy to achieve. The first task that a new chancellor has to face is the revision of the Stability and Growth Pact that enshrines the fiscal rules for the EU. The conservative Bundesbank will have to be more accommodating if EU member states are to find the funds needed for critically important infrastructure investment.

The EU faces inevitable change as global geopolitics keeps mutating. China’s political and economic ambitions need to be harnessed so as not to make the EU even less relevant at a worldwide level. The inward-looking US can no longer be relied on to have a special relationship with Europe in military and economic matters.

Merkel may not have been the biggest visionary, but her hands-on political experience will be sorely missed. We can only hope her successor keeps providing the stability that Europe needs at such a delicate stage.

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