Following the September parliamentary elections in Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel will leave office after a decade and a half during which she not only dominated the political stage in Germany and in Europe, but also took the lead role in the European Union’s enlargement policy towards the Western Balkans. Merkel was instrumental in keeping the countries’ membership prospect alive amidst rising “enlargement fatigue” within the European Union (EU), including in Germany and within her own Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party, and following the 2009 Eurozone crisis. During her time in office, she launched several initiatives, the most prominent among them the Kosovo-Serbia political dialogue (2012-2013) and the 2014 Berlin Process (still ongoing), aimed at fostering regional cooperation. Both ventures deviated from her cautious, reactive comfort zone. Over time, however, those achievements have come under increasing scrutiny, undermined by both major external developments and her own shortcomings.
The former includes three major international events of 2015-2016 – the European refugee crisis, the Brexit referendum and the victory of Donald Trump in the US presidential election – which reflected the growing crisis of the West and of the liberal world order. The latter refers to Merkel’s leadership style, best characterized as reactive and managerial and devoid of policy strategies or vision. Merkel’s leadership style increasingly set self-imposed limitations on her EU lead role which ultimately hit a wall during the refugee crisis. In the midst of the EU’s internal turmoil post-2015, the Union‘s policy towards the Western Balkans region in effect fostered instability, forcing Merkel and her government to shift into damage control and disaster prevention mode. They fought against then EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini’s support for a land swap deal in the Kosovo-Serbia dialogue that perverted the initial rationale and achievements of the political dialogue, and pushed back against French President Emmanuel Macron’s endangering of the enlargement prospect through his consistent blockage of the EU opening accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania. The impact of these developments left its mark on the Merkel era, leaving her almost empty-handed on her engagement on the Western Balkans. Her departure from the political stage demands a thorough evaluation of EU and German policies in the past decade and a half, providing an opportunity for a reset of German policy towards the region and of Germany‘s lead role on enlargement within the Union. There is broad consensus among analysts and policymakers in Berlin that the Greens, which according to recent polls stand a good chance of having a crucial role in the future German government, are best suited to fill the gap left behind by Merkel and to seize the opportunity in light of the upcoming change in the Chancellor’s Office.