BERLIN (AP) — Angela Merkel is embarking on her fourth term as German chancellor in stormy times, facing pressure to bolster a fractious European Union and prove that liberal democracy can succeed as she faces a trade standoff with an increasingly protectionist U.S. and a confident China and Russia.
Merkel, chancellor since 2005 and the EU’s longest-serving leader, was sworn in Wednesday at the head of a “grand coalition” of Germany’s biggest parties. That put an end to nearly six months of drift after September’s election, during which Germany’s voice in the world has been weakened by the domestic political impasse.
Merkel can now turn her attention fully to matters such as French President Emmanuel Macron’s months-old proposals for ambitious reforms of the EU and its currency union, and U.S. President Donald Trump’s threats of trade tariffs against the EU and even taxes on German automakers.
Merkel, 63, has long dismissed the notion that she should be regarded as the “leader of the free world” following the election of Trump, who is unpopular in Germany and elsewhere in Europe. A strong advocate of multilateral solutions, she says that no one person or country can solve every problem.
However, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier underlined expectations that Germany should serve as an example as he formally appointed her new government.
“Western liberal democracies are exposed to challenges, external as well as internal,” he said, with authoritarian alternatives gaining in confidence. He said that “these are testing years for democracy,” with an “everyone against everyone else” mentality spreading in world politics, including in trade policy.
“The expectations of our friends and partners are huge, particularly in Europe,” Steinmeier said. “Many hope we in Germany will show that liberal democracies are capable of acting and facing the future.”
Merkel’s first trip abroad of her fourth term will take her to Paris on Friday to meet Macron. In comments published Wednesday by Germany’s Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, the French leader was quoted as saying that “if Germany doesn’t move, part of my project is condemned to failure.”
“I don’t think for a second that a European project can succeed without or against Germany,” he added.
Elsewhere in Europe, Italy has entered postelection political gridlock just as Germany’s ends. And there are growing tensions between western nations and countries in eastern Europe, such as the nationalist governments of Poland and Hungary.
At home, Merkel will have to hold together potentially her most fragile governing coalition yet in what is widely expected to be her last term.
It contains the same parties as her last administration — her Christian Democratic Union, its Bavaria-only sister party, the Christian Social Union and the center-left Social Democrats — but putting the new administration together has been unprecedentedly difficult after all three lost significant support in September’s election.
A parliamentary vote Wednesday to re-elect Merkel came 171 days after the election, nearly double the previous record. The Social Democrats initially planned to go into opposition after crashing to their worst result since World War II, but Steinmeier nudged them into a reluctant about-turn after Merkel’s talks with two smaller parties collapsed in November.
Merkel was able to take office only after two-thirds of the Social Democrats’ members approved in a ballot the coalition deal clinched last month. With all the coalition parties keen to send signals of renewal, she leads a much-changed Cabinet.
At least 35 coalition lawmakers didn’t support her in Wednesday’s 364-315 vote, and Merkel won only nine votes more than the absolute majority she needed. Opposition leaders portrayed that as a blow to her authority, though the result was in line with those at the beginning of Merkel’s two previous “grand coalitions.”
She faces a deeply divided opposition led by the nationalist Alternative for Germany party, which entered parliament in September after campaigning hard against Merkel and her 2015 decision to allow in large numbers of migrants.
“Finally we have a new government — a government of election losers, business as usual,” Alternative for Germany co-leader Alice Weidel said.