What next after Merkel?

So far this year, we have seen both David Cameron and Matteo Renzi resign as Prime Ministers of the UK and Italy after perusing disastrous ego driven referenda. In France, François Hollande’s popularity has reached a new low and he won’t seek a second term. The last remaining major leader in the EU is longstanding German Chancellor, Angela Merkel; she has declared in recent weeks that she will indeed seek a fourth term in office and lead her centre right CDU party into next year’s German Federal Election.

A beacon of consistency in an ever changing world, Merkel cruised to victory in the 2013 election with the CDU and its Bavarian regional allies, the CSU, claiming 311 seats in the Bundestag off 41.5% of the vote. The simplistic campaign photo of just Merkel’s hands at rest showed how well known and how popular the outgoing Chancellor was. A grand coalition with the second largest party, the Social Democrats, was put together relatively easily soon after with the Christian Democrat element dominant.

Despite declaring that she will stand again and receiving the backing to stay on as leader of the CDU party this week, it is impossible for Merkel to go on forever and regular discussion about a potential successor is already underway even if a possible succession could be anything from six months to three years away. Merkel has led the CDU for 16 years, has been Chancellor since 2005 and for the first time has started to see her popularity significantly wane as the economic challenges and her handling of the refugee crisis begin to take their toll.

It is impossible to predict the result of the federal election but recent regional election results and opinion polling point to a return of the grand coalition, albeit with a significantly reduced majority. Both the far right AfD party and the reformed Communist party Die Lienke is making significant gains.

The likelihood of Merkel losing the keys to the Chancellor’s office depends on the cumulative results of the Social Democrats, Die Lienke and the Greens with a red, red, green alternative possible, dependant on a late surge. Such a coalition would be factious at best, but the CDU/CSU bloc are unlikely to be able to form a government with anyone other than the Social Democrats.

Presuming Merkel manages to hold onto power, the inevitable countdown to her departure will begin. With this in mind, I have decided to take a look at those most likely to succeed her as the head of Germany’s dominant centre right political movement.

Ursula Von der Leyen

Some commentators have identified staunch Merkel loyalist, Ursula Von der Leyen, as one of two current politicians who Merkel wishes to potentially succeed her. She is the current defence minister and advocated for Germany supplying weapons to Kurdish fighters in Syria and oversaw the withdrawal of German soldiers from Afghanistan.

Born in Brussels, she is the daughter of Ernst Albrecht, a prominent CDU politician and former European Commission official, as well as a long-time Prime Minister of Lower Saxony. A doctor by profession, she previously also served as the Minister of Labour and Social Affairs from 2009 to 2013 and as the Minister of Senior Citizens, Women and Youth from 2005 to 2009.

She is noted as being a strong backer of Merkel but not being particularly popular in the CDU or amongst the public at large with criticisms made against her that she “lacks patience.”


Thomas de Maiziere

Supposedly Merkel’s favourite as successor, De Maziere has been the German interior minister since 2013. Before his appointment to the federal cabinet, he served as a cabinet minister in the state government of Saxony, including as chief of staff, minister of finance, and minister of justice. Received criticism in 2015 when he was questioned in Germany about how much he knew of the German intelligence agencies (BND) co-operation with the NSA in spying on European firms. More recently, he has also received criticism for his handling of the refugee crisis.

Wolfgang Schauble

Much like our own Michael Noonan, Schauble is a CDU veteran and constantly polls as Germany’s most popular politician. During his term and finance minister he reduced the budget deficit to zero and the country’s economy did well considering the global economic turmoil.

Along with de Maiziere and von der Leyen, he is one of only three ministers to have continuously served in Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cabinets since she took office in 2005.The biggest fear about him is age, at 73 many believe he does not have the energy.

Jens Spahn

MP for Steinurt and Borken and the current Deputy Finance Minister.  At only 36 years old, many political commentators believe he will become Chancellor at some stage. Has tapped into fear of Islam, using his own story of being gay and linking it to a fear of conservative Islam and populist right-wing backlash against immigration. Very outspoken and combative player in German politics but still in public supports Merkel to run again. One for the long haul perhaps.

David McAllister

Son of a Scottish father and a German mother, McAllister was very much a rising star in politics and a favourite of Merkel until losing control of the Landtag in the Lower Saxony region in 2013. He has since reinvented himself as prominent Member of the European Parliament, being elected as a Vice President of the European People’s Party and being one of the leading voices in Germany when it comes to Brexit.

Horst Seehofer

There has not been a German Chancellor from the Bavarian CSU in the Second World War era. This is unlikely to change but Seehofer has a big profile in Germany as leader of Germany’s strongest region, economically, and as an internal critic of Merkel. Despite the strong CDU/CSU alliance which operates nationally as one party, Seehofer has been highly critical of Merkel’s handling of the refugee crisis whilst he has been an outspoken supporter of Donald Trump.

Despite being held up as a hate figure amongst the anti-austerity movement, Merkel has been a good friend to Ireland during her period as Chancellor and she shares a genuinely close relationship with Enda Kenny going back to a period when they were both opposition leaders when most of their EPP colleagues where in government. She has visited Ireland on a numerous occasions and was one of the first EU leaders to acknowledge that Ireland must be given special consideration in light of Brexit.

More widely, Germany and Merkel have been assuming far more formidable roles in the world as a beacon of stability in a chaotic world. According to The Economist: “some see Mrs Merkel as the last leader of stature to defend the West’s values against the likes of Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan.”

Ireland and Germany enjoy a very strong economic and trade partnership.

Germany is Ireland’s:

4th largest merchandise trading partner

3rd largest export market for Irish food and drink

2nd largest source of Foreign Direct Investment after the USA

3rd most important holiday market to Ireland


 Neale Richmond is the Government spokesman on EU Affairs in Seanad Éireann