When Angela Merkel took office in 2005, it was difficult to imagine Germany with a female leader. Now it’s near impossible to imagine Deutschland without her, but the Mutti or mom of her nation plans to exit the top job after elections this September. The German chancellor has led the world’s fourth-largest economy for more than half of its post-reunification life. She staved off populism, welcomed refugees and calmly guided Europe through multiple crises. But will her legacy last? Consider the people, trends and shifts that will shape a German future after Merkel — and glimpse a world without her steady hand.
Pallabi Munsi, Reporter, and Charu Sudan Kasturi, Senior Editor
faces to follow
1. Armin Laschet
The race to replace Merkel was always going to start with the leadership election for her party, the Christian Democratic Union. Laschet, the premier of North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany’s most populous state, won that vote in January. CDU leaders on Monday affirmed the choice of Laschet as the party favorite to succeed the chancellor. While the 60-year-old is often described as a Merkel loyalist, he has voiced his own political views — whether it’s calling for “zero tolerance” against terrorism or how to enforce lockdowns as the country battles a fresh COVID-19 surge. Can he escape his mentor’s shadow and carve out his own identity nationally?
2. Markus Söder
The 54-year-old Nuremberg-born leader of the Christian Social Union (CSU) announced Sunday he wants to be chancellor, making him Laschet’s biggest threat. The CDU has been in power for nearly 16 years with its smaller alliance partner, the CSU. But the balance of power within that partnership is shifting. The CDU suffered devastating losses in two recent state elections. A corruption scandal involving COVID-19 mask procurements isn’t helping. That gives Söder further bargaining power, and voters seem to prefer him to Laschet. Bavaria’s politicians, however, have yet to win a postwar chancellorship.
3. Annalena Baerbock
Merkel has proven how it’s foolish to count out women on the rise, even if they’re not the most obvious contenders. And no one’s rising faster than Baerbock, joint leader of the Greens, which trounced Merkel’s party in the industrialized and wealthy state of Baden-Württemberg recently. They are now snapping at the ruling coalition’s heels, polling at 23 percent nationally compared to the CDU/CSU alliance’s 27 percent. The Greens plan to announce their candidate for chancellor on April 19. It’s a toss-up between Baerbock and party co-chair Robert Habeck. The 40-year-old Baerbock is convinced she has what it takes reach new heights. After all, she was once an elite trampolinist.
4. Naomi Seibt
Young, blonde and from northern Europe, with a passionate voice on climate change. That’s where her similarities with Swedish activist Greta Thunberg end. The Greens might be rising in Germany, but not everyone’s convinced by science. Seibt, 20, has been called the “anti-Greta” and is fast emerging as the youthful face of the global climate change denial movement. She’s partnered with the conservative U.S.-based Heartland Institute and expressed admiration of white nationalists. But question her, and she won’t shy from using Thunberg’s own famous words against you: “How dare you?" she thundered at probing journalists.
5. Kevin David Lehmann
He’s even younger than Seibt. With a net worth of $3.3 billion, the 18-year-old recently became the world’s youngest billionaire, displacing Kylie Jenner, after inheriting 50 percent of his father’s dm drugstore-style retail chain. The company draws in $12 billion in revenue annually. Germany already has a history of wealthy scions — like Susanne Klatten, the BMW heiress who’s the country’s richest woman and a key CDU funder. Could Lehmann match her influence someday?
The pandemic showed the value of resilience and sustainability. Germany has proven it can offer both. Deutschland could attract top tech talent thanks to how it handled the pandemic economically — with a lower layoff rate than most countries thanks to state support — and R&D spending comparable to the United States. A recent Startup Heatmap Europe study ranked Berlin second only to London among European cities hospitable to startups. It scored high for job creation, industry connections and global connectivity. And as management consultant McKinsey has predicted, Berlin is looking to boost its workforce by 100,000 jobs and become Europe’s startup mecca.
2. King Coal Comes?
Merkel took some of the world’s most aggressive steps to cut carbon emissions and invested heavily in the green economy. But environmental activists view her CDU successor, Laschet, with suspicion, given the minister president was the son of a coal miner. The German wing of Fridays for the Future, the global Thunberg-inspired youth movement against climate change, has raised the alarm about his moves as NRW premier. It’s possible Laschet could pull Germany back from some environmental commitments if he becomes chancellor — although he also could feel pressure to appease the Greens should they gain seats in the September elections.
3. Business Class Airbnbs
Dustin Figge’s mother thought he was crazy to leave his cushy job in San Francisco to return to Cologne and work on a startup. But the venture he co-founded, Homelike, has raised at least $18 million from investors and is active in more than 400 European cities. Homelike made inroads with the corporate temporary housing market, providing a place for transitory workers to lay their head. Demand is high, as the globalized economy increases the number of employees abroad even as freelancers embrace digital nomad life. Homelike, says Figge, is responding to the needs of a new generation of business travelers who put a premium on flexibility — a value the pandemic underscored.
4. Battle for Berlin’s Soul
Spätis, family-run convenience stores which also serve as meeting points for cash-strapped locals, have been the soul of Berlin since the 19th century. Not anymore. In May 2019, a ruling by the Administrative Court of Berlin cracked down on spätis open on Sundays — removing one of their busiest days and making it harder for them to stay afloat. Typically eastern German establishments, spatis often offer relaxed seating for customers to drink cheap beers straight from the bottle. But now they’re struggling in the face of growing gentrification, booming rental costs and tighter regulations. The pandemic may have provided the corner stores a lifeline, though, as Berliners are anxious to get staples quickly without standing in line for a supermarket.
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For years, Germany has officially defined its relationship with Russia with the concept of “Modernisierungspartnerschaft,” meaning “partnership for modernization.” If that’s hard to pronounce, it’s been nearly impossible to truly execute amid frequent tensions — from Russia spying on Merkel to the poisoning of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny, who sought treatment in Berlin. Still, Merkel has tried to keep the relationship afloat. Laschet and Söder both support the controversial Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline connecting Russia and Germany. But the Greens have promised to scrap the pipeline if they do well in September and enter government, even if only as an influential coalition partner.
As with Russia, Merkel’s Germany has pursued a strong working relationship with China. A German-led EU went one step further at the start of this year, inking a major investment deal with Beijing. But faced with growing concerns over human rights abuses in Xinjiang, the EU recently imposed its first major sanctions against China since the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989. Beijing retaliated with sanctions of its own against EU officials. In a call last week with Merkel, Chinese President Xi Jinping acknowledged the “challenges” facing the relationship. Laschet has appeared soft on China in the past, but the new wall between Beijing and Berlin won’t be brought down easily. Walls seldom are, as Germans know only too well.
4. Yesterday, Once More?
It would be tempting to think the U.S. and principal allies like Germany can roll back years of bad blood under Donald Trump and pretend it’s 2016 again. But Biden has continued with Trump’s demand that European NATO members raise their defense spending. His administration also wants Germany to end the Nord Stream 2 pipeline with Russia. Both areas of contention aren’t going anywhere. German trust in America has taken a real beating over the past four years, and restoring it won’t be easy. In fact, even under Biden, most Germans want their country to remain neutral between the U.S. and China.
5. Populist Pariahs
Like a strong matriarch, Merkel aimed to keep the whole family in the tent. As Europe’s most influential leader, she had the means to do it. But without her, experts expect the E.U. to more aggressively take on increasingly illiberal Eastern European regimes, such as in Hungary and Poland. Biden has shown little appetite to accommodate the region’s populist leaders as well. But their actions could inadvertently push Eastern Europe closer to Russia or China, which would be a decidedly unpopular development for global democracy.
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For decades, Polish migrants moved to Germany for a better life, drawn by the dream of making it big in Europe’s largest economy. Now the tables are turning. In parts of eastern Germany that feel neglected by Berlin, schools are now teaching Polish as a second language. That’s as German parents prepare their children to move to Poland — increasingly one of Europe’s most dependable economic engines — to seek their fortunes.
“We don’t have balls, but we know how to use them.” That’s the slogan adopted by Germany’s women’s soccer team. They have dealt with disrespect and people not knowing them despite the nation’s soccer fervor. But now they are out to prove the world they cannot be ignored. Take Sandra Schwedler, the only female supervisory board head in professional soccer in Germany. She’s combining activism with her love for the sport to make her voice heard. And she’s not alone. Germany’s Megan Rapinoes are on a mission to conquer.
Right after the pandemic hit the world, the German federal government last March declared it would allocate $54 billion to support freelancers, small businesses and culture sector workers — an attempt to cope with the economic downturn. And in February this year, the German Ministry of Culture announced it will hand out $1.2 billion in aid to the country’s cultural sector. That’s part two of the country’s New Start Culture program, which started in July 2020 with another $1.2 billion bailout. That’s not all. Germany has also found a way to revive opera, in a socially distanced manner. The world can only hope for better art and entertainment from the European nation.
4. Sexual Healing
For decades, Berlin’s hedonistic nightclubs attracted people from across the world. But after being shut for over a year now, the clubs are struggling to pay rent — at least, without government help. Will they survive? While some are resorting to selling wine at charity shows, others are going online with DJ nights. After years of virility, their efforts may just prove impotent.
5. Migrant Dilemma
Since Merkel opened the doors to them five years ago, more than a million refugees have made Germany their home. Some German states, like Baden-Württemberg, have created economic opportunity out of what was initially seen as a crisis. The state has trained migrants from Syria and elsewhere to take up jobs its aging population can’t support anymore, from Deutsche Bahn train operators to factory workers for auto giants. But it’s not all hunky-dory. A Syrian refugee recently withdrew his candidacy for the German Parliament after receiving multiple death threats. Which legacy — empathy or hatred — will a post-Merkel Germany embrace?
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