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 US election victory, and bind together a European Union in which Germany has forged its post-war identity but which now risks breaking apart.
Polls put her Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU) on around 33%, down some 10 percentage points from summer last year.
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.
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.
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.