Editor’s Note: Professor Matthew Qvortrup is author of Angela Merkel: Europe’s Most Influential Leader. The opinions in this article belong to the author.
The world’s media got into a frenzy on Thursday. “Merkel seen shaking uncontrollably for a second time,” reported The Sun, a British tabloid newspaper.
Such stories might not be surprising in a paper that, since the refugee crisis in 2015, has wasted few opportunities to predict impending doom for Angela Merkel, Germany’s Chancellor and Europe’s most powerful politician.
Only this time, they were joined by more even-handed media outlets.
“She is fine,” was the official message from 1 Willy-Brandt-Strasse, the official address of the German chancellor, and the equivalent of the White House. Yet, there was silence from Merkel’s official spokesperson Stefan Seibert. Indeed, his Twitter account only reported that Merkel had been present at the swearing-in of the new minister of justice Christine Lambrecht.
But he did not report what happened at the ceremony. Perhaps because it was here that she was shaking.
The footage shows Merkel standing next to the new minister and Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier. Suddenly, while the president spoke, Merkel started shaking. Not, to be fair, “uncontrollably,” as some suggested. But she was visibly unwell as she held her arms tightly across her body. She was given a glass of water, but she did not drink it.
Such incidents would be newsworthy on any day. What makes the matter even more alarming is that Merkel suffered a similar episode of the shakes when she met the Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky earlier this month. That incident was blamed on the warm weather and Merkel said she’d not been drinking enough water.
Her spokesperson’s failure to mention the incident and the fact that it came only a week after a similar episode, needless to say, is a cause for concern. Aged 64, Merkel is still relatively young. But working long days for 14 years (she became chancellor in 2005) is not healthy for anyone.
That the most powerful female politician in democratic history is unwell at a time of crisis is a cause for concern. And her ailment could not come at a worse time. If she is indeed ill, Germany, and hence the rest of Europe, is facing a crisis at a very inopportune moment. Or so it is said.
The hope in Germany was that Merkel would remain as Kanzlerin until the next federal election in 2022. But her own party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) has suffered calamitously low poll ratings; at 25% they are neck-and-neck with the Green Party.
Moreover, Merkel’s coalition partner, the center-left Social Democrats (SPD), is suffering even more catastrophic poll ratings. At 12% the party is only marginally ahead of the far-right AfD Party.
If Merkel were to step down due to illness, her designated successor Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer (known as AKK) cannot be certain of taking over as Bundeskanzlerin. But neither the SPD, nor the CDU (and its sister party CSU) are interested in elections. So, what happens?
According to conventional wisdom, there are two scenarios: either Merkel recovers and serves out her term or AKK takes over as leader of the CDU-SPD coalition.
But neither of these seem plausible in the light of Merkel’s illness, nor in the light of the poor showing for the CDU at the European Parliamentary elections.
Another possibility is that Merkel steps down and the AKK forms a coalition government with the Green Party and the free-market Free Democrats. Such a coalition currently exists in the state of Schleswig-Holstein, where the Green Party Leader Robert Habeck is deputy Premier. This coalition would have a majority in the Bundestag, and would enjoy popular support.
Hence, Merkel’s potential illness might lead to a more stable government. German politics is shaken by rumors of the Chancellor’s health, but it is not stirred.