Angela Merkel and her center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) were trounced in regional elections this past weekend. It’s going to be that type of year for Merkel. Here are the 5 biggest risks that Merkel, the most important voice in any conversation about Europe’s future, faces over the coming months.
1. Political Rivals: Continuing Rise of the AfD
Merkel’s CDU finished in third place in regional elections last weekend in the northeastern state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, her home state. Finishing behind the second-place far-right and anti-EU Alternative fur Deutschland (AfD) makes matters much worse. Nationalist parties have been on the rise across the continent, a particularly unnerving development for Merkel, a defender of the broader European project. The AfD is a relative newcomer to German politics, but it has hit the ground running. Since its founding in 2013, it has gone from polling at below 3 percent nationally to more than 12 percent today. It has made strides over the past 12 months by taking a hard line against Merkel’s ‘open-door’ policy on Syrian refugees. AfD now has deputies in over half of Germany’s 16 state assemblies and is predicted to enter at least a couple more. It’s been 70 years since xenophobic and nationalist politics have found such a real audience in Germany.
2. Political Partners: A Fracturing Coalition?
The ultimate victor of this weekend’s elections, with roughly 30 percent of the vote, was the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), Merkel and the CDU’s on-and-off coalition partners since 2005. But the rise of AfD and other parties is putting a strain on the long-standing partnership of center-left and -right forces in German politics. Sigmar Gabriel—head of the SDP, Minister for Economic Affairs and Merkel’s vice chancellor—U-turned on Merkel’s migration policy and has declared the TTIP E.U.-U.S. trade deal “failed.” Even some of her reliable allies are distancing themselves from Merkel, a jarring development for a politician who just two years ago was touted as the savior of Europe. If the CDU continues to fall flat in regional elections, like the one upcoming in Lower Saxony, Gabriel and the SPD will have even more reason to keep their distance, making governing—and campaigning ahead of next fall’s federal elections—that much more difficult for Merkel.
3. Migrants & Turkey
It’s not hard to see why Merkel and her party have tumbled in popularity. Merkel decided to throw open the doors to Syrian refugees last year, a morally courageous and politically risky act. The German state has clamped down considerably on refugee flows into the country—for example, by tightening border controls and asylum rules—in response to domestic backlash. New asylum seekers fell from 90,000 in January to 16,335 in June, but the PR damage has been done, and a majority of Germans disapprove of her migrant policy. Merkel’s political fate is now inextricably linked to this problem.
To cope, Merkel and Europe have struck a deal with Turkey to keep refugees inside that country from attempting to reach Greece by boat. It’s done the job so far; Turkey currently houses 2.7 million displaced Syrians. But the deal is getting harder to maintain as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan grows more authoritarian and erratic; failed coup attempts can have that effect. As Erdogan tries to quash dissent, Europe is forced to decide how far it’s willing to work with Erdogan as his crackdown on independent journalism and assault on the rule of law continue. The increasingly vulnerable Merkel may be more willing than other European leaders to give Erdogan some space, yet another blow to European solidarity.
4. Germany’s Economic Prospects
Merkel’s saving grace so far is a German economy humming along while most of Europe sputters. Yet while Germany is the world’s fourth-largest economy and a manufacturing powerhouse, there are troubling signs ahead.
The services sector just registered its weakest performance in 15 months. Slowing growth in Europe and emerging markets means less demand for German products. Then there’s the continuing fallout from Brexit. Britain is Germany’s third-largest export market; it exports nearly twice the amount it imports from the U.K.. Who knows what Brexit and whatever trade deal that accompanies it will bring. And given current political realities, any loss of confidence in the economy will add to Merkel’s headaches.
Read More: Angela Merkel’s First TIME Profile
5. E.U. Challenges
Greece continues to stumble under German-mandated austerity. Sanctions on Russia haven’t budged Moscow, but have hit European economies. Then there are the looming Brexit negotiations. London wants to strike the most favorable deal it can while Brussels and Berlin want to offer harsh terms to dissuade other European countries from following suit, particularly with national elections next year in Germany and France.
Italy faces a constitutional referendum that will determine whether Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and his government will survive in office. Hungary is holding a referendum on whether it should reject the E.U.’s burden-sharing plan for migrants, a vote that looks set to embarrass Merkel and Brussels. Austria is poised to elect the far-right Norbert Hofer as president, the first time ever a far-right leader will become a head of state in the E.U. All of that will happen in the next two months or so.
Of particular concern is the rise of Marine Le Pen and the far-right Front National in France. France has presidential elections scheduled for the spring of 2017, and Le Pen—who calls herself ‘Madame Frexit’—looks poised to be a contender until the bitter end. All of which is to say that Merkel’s ability to enforce European consensus on controversial issues will continue to be sorely tested as domestic politics play out across the continent.
Taken individually, each of these risks could be overcome—Merkel is a remarkably capable politician. But taken together, they pose an almost insurmountable obstacle to Merkel’s ability to maintain the illusion of European unity—and they collectively threaten her political future at home. If Merkel thought 2016 was tough, she’s not going to like 2017.