Germany’s middle name might as well be “continuity.” Its largest party, the Christian Democratic Party (CDU), just dispatched its eternal leader Angela Merkel by electing a younger version, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, 56. Whoever heads the party has a very good chance of inheriting Merkel’s job as chancellor in 2021, if not earlier. There is just a small hitch: In a country usually run by folks with very short names—Brandt, Schmidt, Kohl—a chancellor with a seven-syllable moniker evokes a veritable revolution.
Yet “AKK,” as the media would have it it, is anything but a revolutionary. If she advances into the Chancellor’s Office, she promises to be a younger Merkel: a centrist who is a bit to the right of her predecessor on cultural issues, and a bit to her left on welfare policy. Like her mentor, who has groomed her for the top party job, AKK is like a captain who changes course by a few degrees only, prudently plumbing the depths. AKK will remember why Merkel stumbled—when she abandoned all caution and took in a million-plus refugees in 2015. That was the beginning of her long slide from power.
But what a run Merkel had! The pastor’s daughter has stayed at the helm for 13 years. She has outlasted three U.S. presidents—George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. She has seen three French heads of state come and go. In her heyday, she was feted as uncrowned empress of the European Union.
But Annegret is Angela II, at a moment when electorates throughout the West are opting for radical breaks with the status quo. Donald Trump embodies the most brutal rupture, first hijacking the G.O.P., then turning U.S. policy upside-down at home and abroad. France’s Emmanuel Macron defied the past as well, raising his own political army on the ruins of his country’s party system. Touting his reforms, he vowed to make France great again.
Meanwhile Italy’s current government unites right-wing and left-wing populists—a historical first. The unlikely coalition is held together by nationalism and resentment of the E.U., as Brussels labors to impose fiscal discipline on a country that has always lived beyond its means. Italy’s national debt is Europe’s largest as a fraction of GDP.
To the east, in Poland and Hungary, rupture comes in a different guise—call it nationalist authoritarianism. In Britain, Brexit is doing away with half a century of continuity by absconding from the European Union.
“The times are out of joint,” the Bard would muse—but not in Germany, a country that was the epicenter of extremism in the 20th century. In 1918, revolution brought down the imperial regime of Wilhelm II. The Weimar Republic was ground down by the Nazis on the right and the Communists on the left. Hitler Germany almost destroyed Europe. Yet another revolution toppled the Berlin Wall and the communist regime in East Germany. The Germans had their fill of excitement, which explains why they have become as aggressive as pussy cats and as reliable as a VW before the company started cheating on diesel emissions. Behold the contrast: In Macron’s France, another march on the Bastille has brought the government to its knees; in Germany, the largest party (which stands to field the next chancellor) has elected Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, a pillar of continuity and a moderate’s dream.
To properly appreciate this turn, look at AKK’s failed rivals for party leadership. The most fearsome contender was Friedrich Merz. He scored 48 percent of the delegates’ vote—very close, but still no cigar. He represented the “old” CDU that Merkel had slowly strangled by systematically moving the party to the left.
As strong as the longing for the party’s conservative past may have been, it did not undo what Merkel had wrought in her 18 years as chairwoman of the CDU. In the end, Merz was just a bit too much: too pro-market and too conservative. Nor did the party savor a millionaire with two (small) private planes. Or his lucrative past as corporate lawyer and director of a dozen companies, including BlackRock, Germany, where he served as chairman. In egalitarian Germany, great wealth is no ticket to a top-tier political office.
AKK’s second rival, health minister Jens Spahn, was also a bit too much. Though openly gay, he is too much of a cultural conservative and just too hard on immigrants and Germany’s munificent welfare state, which redistributes about 30 percent of GDP .
By contrast, AKK was just right—a few inches to the right of Merkel, but no German Margaret Thatcher who would tear down what her predecessors had built. Yet AKK knew full well what had dethroned Empress Angela: a million-plus Mideast refugees. The price was the rapid rise of the far-right “Alternative for Germany” (AfD). Cutting into the CDU’s voter base, the AfD scored a historical first, making it into the Bundestag, which no right-wing party has ever achieved. Today, the AfD is ensconced in the legislatures of all of Germany’s 16 states.
Ever so subtly, AKK has positioned herself as “Merkel-minus”: centrism without open doors. As prime minister of her home state of Saarland, she took a harder line on those asylum seekers whose applications had been been rejected. Let’s deport them swiftly! In another bow to the immigration-weary electorate, she entered the culture war by taking on Muslim males who refused to take food from the hands of female aid workers. Let them go hungry, AKK advised. Merkel would have obfuscated.
AKK’s victory over her two rivals on the right comes with a larger message than “no munchies for macho Muslims.” For Armin Laschet, the CDU prime minister of Northrhine-Westphalia, AKK’s anointment signifies “great continuity.” He added: “There is no fundamental wish to change things.”
That is Germany ‘18 in a nutshell. By contrast, Deutschland’s neighbors are willing to put their money on the unknown because there is a “fundamental wish to change”—and damn the consequences. Change is not forward, but backward into what we might call a “reactionary utopia.”
Dreaming of a better past, the British are willing to risk economic and political isolation. In their street wars against Macron, the French want to return to enshrined group privileges and munificent welfare spending. The Italians seek salvation from strongmen who pretend that they can unhinge the laws of economics. Their brethren in Hungary and Poland echo the authoritarians of the interwar period.
Germany is the odd man out, but in a reassuring manner compared to the first half of the 20th century. When an Annegret follows an Angela, the statics of the country are firm. The rest of Europe in the age of Trump and Putin is another story. Who would have thought that Emmanuel Macron would buckle so quickly? Or that Italy would fall to the populists on the right and the left? These two were among the six founding members of the European Union.