By Emily Schultheis March 23, 2021
BERLIN—Like all young Germans, Lilli Fischer has lived nearly all of her conscious life during Angela Merkel’s tenure as chancellor of Germany. Now 21 years old, Fischer was just a newborn in 2000, when Merkel took over leadership of Germany’s center-right party, the Christian Democratic Union or CDU; she was just 5 years old when Merkel became the country’s first female chancellor in 2005.
Fast forward to today, and Fisher, too, has entered public life. Frustrated by the education policies of the state government in Thuringia, her home in the country’s east, she first got involved in politics while she was still in high school. Now, she’s the No. 2 politician from Merkel’s CDU in Erfurt, Thuringia’s capital, where she serves as a city councilwoman and works to give young people a louder voice in German politics.
Fisher says her career was partly inspired by the example Merkel has set. “For me, Angela Merkel is as much a part of everyday politics as a coffee in the morning is part of the day,” she told me. “She’s such a steady presence that I can’t imagine things without her.”
Hannah Pirot, a 17-year-old from Berlin, also finds it difficult to think about Germany without Merkel at the helm. “Everything I’ve consciously experienced has been under Angela Merkel,” she said in an interview. As a spokesperson for Berlin’s branch of the Fridays for Future movement—the student-led environmentalist campaign started by Greta Thunberg—Pirot has gotten deeply involved in politics as well, fighting outside of traditional party structures for serious reforms to combat climate change.
Growing up, Pirot always admired Merkel. “For me she was, first of all, always a very good chancellor,” she said. “When I looked at chancellors from other countries, I always thought, ‘Wow, I can be happy that we have Angela Merkel.’” But more recently, as Pirot has started advocating for big changes in climate policy, she has noticed some of the ways in which Merkel falls short of her expectations.
In September, Germans will head to the polls to elect a new parliament and, by extension, the country’s next chancellor. For the first time in 16 years, that will be someone new, because in 2018, Merkel announced that she was stepping down as CDU leader and wouldn’t run for another term. After a false start with Merkel’s hand-picked successor, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, the party chose Armin Laschet—the premier of Germany’s most populous state, North Rhine-Westphalia—as its next leader in January. Though still the likeliest candidate to succeed Merkel as chancellor, Laschet now faces an uphill battle among party members and German voters after a series of corruption scandals and a poor CDU showing in two recent state elections in mid-March.
Regardless of the CDU’s prospects come September, however, Merkel will exit the political stage. What will German politics be like without her ubiquitous and stable presence? As election day looms, the entire German political establishment is grappling with that question. Merkel’s departure will mark a major turning point for Germany, which has grown accustomed to her brand of non-ideological, consensus-driven politics, and for Europe, where she’s played an integral role in the European Union. After four terms and 16 years as chancellor, the 66-year-old physicist from the former East Germany has become a symbol, not just at home but around the world.
And yet, her legacy is full of contradictions. Internationally, Merkel is often viewed as a liberal icon, a champion of a rules-based international order at a time when that concept is increasingly under threat. Domestically, though, the view is more complicated, since Germans also know Merkel as the leader of a conservative party. In a similar contrast, Merkel is noted for being the first woman and the first East German to hold her job—yet she has downplayed both facts in her political identity and done little to advance representation of either group in government.
Merkel is also valued for adeptly positioning herself and her party to match the political consensus of the day, even when that has meant shifting on some issues. But this skill has often made it difficult to tell what she herself really believes, opening her up to attacks from political opponents. Perhaps most importantly, her management of a decade’s worth of crises—the 2008 financial crisis, the eurozone crisis, the 2015-2016 refugee crisis and now the coronavirus pandemic—has both held Germany together and, by directly and indirectly fueling support for the far-right Alternative for Germany party, helped to divide it.
Those contradictions are also present in the minds of members of the “Merkel Generation” in Germany, the young people who have come of age during her tenure. For Fischer, Pirot and their entire generation, the Merkel era has shaped the way they view politics and the challenges on the horizon.
Merkel will leave a vacuum behind when she departs the chancellery—and the generation that’s grown up with her is keenly aware of that impending shift. But in conversations with nearly a dozen members of the “Merkel Generation,” many told me that vacuum could breathe new life into German politics, allowing for bolder decision-making and an opportunity to make German politics more inclusive.
Stability Through Crisis
During her tenure in office, Merkel has led Germany through crisis after crisis by adopting a no-nonsense, follow-the-science brand of politics. For her admirers, this is central to her appeal.
“I’ve always found it very impressive how she dealt with problems, especially with problematic people, like Trump and Putin,” said Carolin Renner, a 24-year-old activist with the Greens in Gorlitz, a city on Germany’s eastern border with Poland. “She never lost her composure. She was always completely calm. She approached every problem really systematically—you can’t say that about many people in politics.”
That approach to politics, and particularly to crisis politics, has become even more important at a time when populist parties are taking hold across the globe. While then-President Donald Trump was dangerously speculating that injecting disinfectant into the bloodstreams of patients might cure COVID-19 last spring, Merkel was calmly and clearly explaining the science behind a virus’s reproduction rate in a clip that ultimately went viral.
For Darlyn Buchwitz, a 24-year-old from North Rhine-Westphalia who will be working for the CDU’s campaign headquarters this year, Merkel’s fact-based approach has been a particularly good fit during the pandemic. “She’ll say, ‘It doesn’t matter what anyone thinks. We don’t need to have a political debate about this. Those are just the facts, and we need to act according to those,’” Buchwitz explained. “I think that’s actually quite a healthy way of approaching things.”
In fact, in conversations with young people, nearly everyone—regardless of their political affiliations—began by noting their respect for Merkel and her ability to guide the country through difficult challenges, even if the current state of the pandemic is testing that ability.
“What is astonishing to me is that even very progressive people somehow have a high opinion of her, despite her being part of a conservative party,” said Joris Niggemeier. A 27-year-old from North Rhine-Westphalia, Niggemeier works with the Jusos—short for Jungsozialisten, or “young socialists”—the youth organization of the center-left Social Democratic Party. Although many would criticize certain aspects of Merkel’s tenure, he added, “it’s a different kind of critique: It’s not a critique of her person, but more an evaluation of how Germany has changed during her time.”
At the same time, Buchwitz, the CDU campaigner, pointed out that perhaps the most defining decision of Merkel’s political life—allowing more than a million refugees to come to Germany in 2015 and 2016—is the rare exception to her middle-of-the-road, “populist-proof way of approaching politics.” That decision gave the far-right Alternative for Germany, or AfD, the rhetorical fuel it needed to expand its support. Running on a staunchly anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim agenda—even going so far as to invoke Nazi-era language in their campaigns—it eventually won 12.6 percent of the vote in the 2017 federal elections.
Mohamad Akkour, a 21-year-old Syrian who came to Germany as a refugee, said he admires Merkel because of her “courageous” decision to allow people like him to come to the country. “It’s because of that decision that I’ve found a home, that I can live in safety,” Akkour said. After leaving Aleppo in 2015, Akkour made the perilous journey across the Mediterranean and up through the Balkans, eventually settling in Gelsenkirchen, a city in the heart of Germany’s former coal country in the industrial Ruhr Valley.
Merkel’s decision, and the fact that she made it despite the political fallout she would ultimately face, is part of why Akkour is so intent on giving back to his community and engaging in politics at the local level. Last fall, he ran for a seat on Gelsenkirchen’s Integration Council, an elected body that represents the interests of the city’s many immigrants, as a candidate for the Social Democratic Party. “I got involved politically because I was shaped by [Merkel’s] decision,” he told me. “It really did save our lives and offer us a chance, a new future.”
On the other side of the political spectrum is Robert Preuss, a 35-year-old in Dresden who now supports the AfD as a result of Merkel’s policies. After voting for parties like the anti-establishment Pirates and the liberal Free Democrats, Preuss was first drawn to the AfD in 2013 because of its opposition to the use of bailout funds during the eurozone crisis. Merkel’s 2015 decision to welcome refugees cemented his support for the far-right party. His path to the AfD reflects how it leveraged both issues in its rise to prominence. As Preuss explained, “Without both of those events, the AfD wouldn’t exist.”
Moreover, Preuss is among those who believe Merkel’s conciliatory approach to politics is a weakness, not an asset. “Typical Germans want their politicians to be as gray and unassuming as possible. That makes her sympathetic for many people. But in the end, that’s not a good criterion for leading a country well,” he said. “I’m not a fan of this extreme consensus-driven politics.”
Big Challenges Remain Unsolved
Other young Germans, even those who generally respect Merkel, also see a downside to her consensus-driven style of leadership and desire to position herself at the center of public opinion. Incremental policy shifts on Merkel’s part, they say, have led to only incremental policy change—not nearly enough to tackle some of today’s biggest challenges.
“For a short amount of time in a crisis, [building consensus] is maybe a good way to deal with things. But at one point you need to have the guts to go forward,” said Hanna Reichhardt, the 27-year-old vice president of the Jusos. “The big questions for my generation, they’re still on the table. Merkel didn’t manage to find answers for the big questions over the last 16 years, like the climate crisis, like social justice, like LGBTQI rights, liberal rights, how to deal with migration in German society.”
That was a frequent refrain in my conversations with young Germans, particularly so when it comes to climate issues, which they named as the defining political issue of their generation. Merkel, who previously served as Germany’s environment minister, was once known as the “Climate Chancellor” for her advocacy of climate-friendly policies in multilateral forums. But her green reputation has been tarnished by a series of perceived compromises on climate issues in recent years.
More recently, in June, Germany submitted its 10-year climate plan to the European Union, in which it pledged to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 55 percent by 2030, and to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050—a goal experts say it is on track to miss. And while the government decided to end coal-based energy production by 2038, climate activists say that date is not nearly ambitious enough to make the kind of impact needed.
“Merkel has good instincts, but for a long time now, it hasn’t been enough,” said Pirot, of Fridays for Future. “The political center needs to open itself up to new ideas and also for new people.” The CDU, and by extension Merkel, she continued, “have quite often ensured that we don’t make real progress in Germany, that we don’t say goodbye to old things but rather stick to our old traditions … and that we cannot develop further, at least not as quickly as we actually have to.”
As Renner, the Greens activist from Gorlitz, put it, “I’ve always gotten the impression she’s tried to stay on course: We’ll first stick with the status quo, and when it no longer works, we’ll change something. But the problem is the world is changing so quickly, everything is happening so fast, that it might have been necessary to go a bit further and try out new options.”
An Unassuming Female Role Model
Merkel’s historic role as the first female chancellor is one aspect of her legacy that’s deeply important to young Germans. In particular, the young women who are involved in politics today—and there are, encouragingly, many of them—believe that seeing Merkel in office had a major impact on their own aspirations.
“I was 9 years old when Angela Merkel became chancellor, and she has accompanied me throughout my conscious political life,” said Wiebke Winter, a 24-year-old member of the CDU national leadership who is running for parliament this fall. “This self-image she gave me, that I can always become chancellor … that’s something very special. That she did it so calmly, and that she did it all with such bravery—I have such great respect for the work of this woman.”
Still, many of those young people acknowledged that Merkel has always sought to avoid making her gender a key part of her identity, and they wish she had made a more conscious effort to fight for women’s rights. To this day, Merkel struggles to define herself as a feminist. Although she has served as a role model for women by simply being a woman and being powerful, she has taken few concrete actions to help promote women’s equality at the low- to mid-levels of business and public life.
For Reichhardt, the Jusos vice president, Merkel’s historic role played a part in her own desire to get involved in politics. Seeing a female chancellor convinced her “there’s room for me,” she said. But like other young women, she wished Merkel had been a more vocal advocate for other women. What’s more, she finds Merkel’s vote against same-sex marriage in 2017 out of step with what young people believe. Merkel did allow the vote to go forward, in response to pressure from the Social Democratic Party, and the bill ultimately passed. But she aligned her own vote with the conservative platform of the CDU, saying, “For me, personally, marriage in the Basic Law is between a man and a woman.”
“In regard to policies, she actually didn’t do much,” Reichhardt said. “She definitely was not a feminist, and she was no fighter for feminist policies or LGBTQI rights or things like this. In her heart she’s a conservative, and we should remember that.”
A Chance for Renewal
Even with Merkel on her way out, the course of the CDU seems unlikely to change drastically. And Laschet remains Merkel’s likeliest successor as chancellor, although the state elections in March have raised some doubts as to his and the party’s chances of holding onto the chancellery. He too, has said CDU leaders should speak plainly to people and “not polarize.” With a political style relatively similar to Merkel’s, he is unlikely to stray too far from the course she has set if elected.
But Merkel’s departure, according to young activists, could still present an opportunity for change. Losing her steady presence will be a disruption, but it’s one that could force her own party and others to open up to a new and more diverse generation of leaders, and to take bolder action on key issues.
Although youth representation in German politics remains disproportionately low, young activists believe their generation is starting to recognize just what’s at stake. Growing alarm over the climate crisis among young people, who would face the gravest consequences of inaction, has driven more members of the “Merkel Generation” to get involved.
“We have to make ourselves loud,” said Fischer, the CDU city council member from Erfurt. “And I have the feeling that this is happening very well at the moment, that young people are becoming more political. After years of disenchantment with politics, people are getting involved again.”
Young activists also hope the post-Merkel era will be more inclusive, making politics look more like the country its politicians represent: younger, more female, less white and more accepting of different backgrounds.
Akkour sees the younger generation in Germany as key to combating the xenophobic, anti-immigrant rhetoric of the far right. If enough young people take politics seriously and get involved, he said, they can help ensure that German democracy remains strong—and that harsh rhetoric against refugees like him won’t be tolerated in German society.
“A lot of young people think, ‘What should I do? What can I say? There are already politicians who take care of things.’ But everyone has a responsibility, everyone can and should express their opinions,” he said. “If the far right is the only one out there saying they don’t want any refugees here, they don’t want any foreigners here, and other people don’t express their opinions and contradict them—then democracy and our ability to coexist are in danger.”
Regardless of whether they hoped for a change of direction in Germany’s politics, many young activists and politically involved people do hope to see clearer differentiations between Germany’s biggest political parties, as well as a more open and diverse culture of debate within German politics. Those involved in traditional political parties hope they can bring disillusioned young people back into the fold. And all of this, they say, can and should lead to a Germany that’s willing to take bolder action.
“It’s the end of an era, that’s totally clear. It will be a great disruption for all of us,” said Winter, the CDU parliamentary candidate. But, she added, “it’s a great chance for us to renew ourselves and for us to maybe go for the big leagues, because we now need to make the big decisions—for the climate crisis, or for our social system, or pension system.”
She recalled a speech Merkel gave not long ago to the Junge Union, the youth arm of the CDU, in which she said it was up to their generation to solve the big issues of our time—that she was effectively passing the baton on to them. “That was also one of my motivations where I said, ‘Okay, I want to run for parliament, because I really have to go there and do it myself,’” Winter said. “And maybe that will be a new chance for us.”
Emily Schultheis is a freelance journalist and fellow with the Institute of Current World Affairs based in Berlin, where she covers German politics and the rise of right-wing populism. Her reporting has appeared in The Atlantic, Foreign Policy and Politico, among other publications.
Germany’s long-serving chancellor is proud of protecting democracy — and worried about the future as she bids farewell to her fourth and final American president.
By RYAN HEATH
Don’t call it a farewell tour. But also don’t ask any hard questions about Russia or China.
Angela Merkel came to Washington this week as the undisputed political queen of Europe, and to firm up what she called the “framework conditions” for democracy.
Merkel stuck to her comfort zone of stabilizing, general talk. “Democratic institutions have to be nurtured,” she said accepting her Doctor of Humane Letters from Johns Hopkins University. “If these institutions are under permanent attack and put into question, democracy will not work.”
For 36 years, Merkel lived under the Soviet-aligned East German regime, and over 16 years as Chancellor of Germany, she attended more than 100 summits, weathered four U.S. presidents, beat a global financial crisis, opened her country’s doors to more than a million refugees in the summer of 2015, and survived Brexit.
If there’s a Merkel Doctrine, it’s based on survival: keep standing and compromising, because the alternative is worse.
Via their deep, shared belief in democracy, diplomacy and international solutions to great political challenges, President Joe Biden and Merkel are instinctive partners.
“She’s a great friend, a personal friend, and a friend of the United States,” Biden said as Merkel arrived in the Oval Office on Thursday for a bilateral meeting that lasted two hours. “She knows the Oval Office as well as I do,” he added later at a joint press conference.
White House officials speak about Merkel with reverence — the sort of florid praise reserved for an icon who is the longest-serving leader in NATO, the G-7 and the EU. Merkel first joined the German cabinet in 1991, with the reunification of Germany, a decade before Biden chaired the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and when some of his top foreign policy advisers were still in middle school.
Speaking at her final White House press conference before leaving office sometime after Sept. 26, Merkel acknowledged that her usual survival strategy would not be enough for the transatlantic alliance to succeed in the future.
“Simply committing to these values is certainly not sufficient,” she said, just minutes after committing to a so-called “Washington Declaration” on opposing democratic backsliding, and urging joint efforts on issues, including climate change. “We need to translate these values into practical policies,” Merkel said.
Left unsaid: it will be up to her successor to create those solutions.
Asked when he would be visiting Germany, Biden replied “soon, I hope.” Biden’s next planned trip to Europe will be for the G-20 leaders summit in Rome in October. There, he’s likely to be meet with Armin Laschet, from Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, who is favored to replace her as Chancellor. Or perhaps Annalena Baerbock, the Green Party candidate took her party to the top of national polls briefly in May.
Merkel inherited a frigid U.S.-German relationship in 2005 from her predecessor Gerhard Schröder, a vocal opponent of the Iraq War. After a German love affair with President Barack Obama — sealed when he spoke before a crowd of hundreds of thousands in Berlin while still a candidate — the relationship hit new post-war lows from 2017, as President Donald Trump accused Germany of free-riding off the U.S. military and disrupted countless summits where Merkel previously held court.
While U.S.-German relations have returned to a steady state in 2021, there’s significant disagreement in the nuts and bolts of policy.
There’s broad agreement that the two countries should aim for strong democratic institutions, net-zero carbon emissions, an end to the Covid-19 pandemic, and joint policies on Russia and China — but no plan on how to get there.
On Thursday, Merkel didn’t get the answer she wanted on even her most fundamental question: would the Biden administration lift the travel ban on Europeans entering the United States in place since March 2020? In fact, she didn’t get any answer at all. Biden told reporters he’d deliver an answer “in coming days.”
In the same vein, Biden didn’t get the answer he wanted on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline he opposes between Russia and Germany.
Merkel has doggedly supported construction of the pipeline over strong opposition from both Washington and Brussels, but left open the option of sanctions against Russia if it acts against Ukraine’s territorial integrity or stops selling gas via Ukraine’s pipelines. “Our idea is and remains that Ukraine remain a transit country for natural gas, and Ukraine retains the right to territorial integrity,” Merkel told reporters.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) led calls by Republicans on Thursday for Biden to step up pressure on Merkel, given the pipeline is set to open as soon as August. Biden in May pulled back from imposing sanctions on the company constructing the pipeline.
A senior administration official defended the move Wednesday as giving “diplomatic space” for Washington and Berlin to minimize the pipeline’s negative impacts. Running under the Baltic Sea, the pipeline bypasses Ukraine, which depends on fees from Russian gas transiting across its territory to fund its defense and other public services.
Rubio said in a letter to Biden that his administration’s decision to waive sanctions against Nord Stream 2 AG, the company constructing the pipeline, “will only endanger our democratic allies in East and Central Europe and embolden Russian President Vladimir Putin in his aggression,” and insisted there is bipartisan support in Congress for preventing the pipeline’s completion.
Germany has its own misgivings about U.S. policy. After years of undershooting a shared NATO target of spending 2 percent of GDP on defense, two recent U.S. moves have allowed Germany to put Washington on the back foot in defense discussions.
First, Trump announced in late 2020 that the U.S. would pull out 12,000 troops stationed in Germany — a decision that Biden later reversed. Then in April, Biden announced full withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, without first consulting with Berlin, which had the second-biggest foreign military presence in the country.
On China, Merkel pushed for an EU-China investment agreement that was signed just weeks before Biden’s inauguration and refused to block Huawei’s involvement in the country’s 5G mobile networks. Her best offer Thursday: “wherever human rights are not guaranteed, we will make our voices heard.”
Climate change and Covid-19 were the other recurring themes of Merkel’s visit, and she brought her scientific training to the discussions.
At Johns Hopkins University, Merkel urged her audience to “remain vigilant” against Covid-19 despite the pandemic “wearing us down.”
Describing climate change as “the challenge of our times,” Merkel directly linked climate change to the “dramatic increase in unusual weather”— including recent wildfires and heatwaves in the U.S. and flooding in Germany. She proudly pointed out Germany’s goal of net-zero carbon emissions by 2045, under the umbrella of the European Union’s carbon market, the world’s biggest.
In the absence of binding federal U.S. climate targets or a carbon market, Merkel suggested American innovation would be critical in tackling climate change, predicting “a profound transformation for the way we live, which doesn’t work without innovation.”
But Merkel admitted she may struggle with her own upcoming profound transformation: to private citizen.
Asked by Ronald Daniels, president of Johns Hopkins University, about her plans for life after office, Merkel said: “I don’t know. I’m so used to what I do now. I’m sort of afraid no one will want to see me anymore.”
BY RJ REINHART
DECEMBER 17, 2020
WASHINGTON, D.C. — As German Chancellor Angela Merkel prepares to leave office after nearly two decades in power, approval of Germany’s leadership has never been higher in many countries.
Across the 29 countries and areas that Gallup has surveyed so far in 2020, a median 62% approves of Germany’s leadership, up slightly from a median of 59% for this same group in 2019. Approval ratings are at, or top, previous record highs in 18 of the 29 countries.
Approval of Germany’s leadership has generally trended up among the current 29 countries since the early years of Merkel’s tenure. Although the increase between 2019 and 2020 was somewhat modest, there has been a 20-percentage-point increase in the median from 2006 to 2020.
Highest and Lowest Levels of German Leadership Approval
Of the 29 countries and areas for which data are available, approval ratings in a full 18 are at or above previous record highs for approval of German leadership. Majorities approve of Germany’s leadership in 25 countries out of the 29.
Most of the 10 countries with the highest approval ratings of Germany’s leadership so far in 2020 are Germany’s neighbors in Europe. These countries largely have similar types of governments and strong social welfare systems similar to Germany; they are also members or candidates for membership in the European Union. The only country outside of Europe in the top 10 is Canada, which has had a lengthy alliance with Germany through NATO.
Approval of Germany’s Leadership in 2020
|Do you approve or disapprove of the job of the leadership of Germany?||Approve||Disapprove|
|United States of America**||56||27|
|Taiwan, province of China||41||15|
|*New high ** Ties previous high|
|GALLUP WORLD POLL, 2020|
High levels of approval of Germany’s leadership are not universal. For instance, 30% of Iranians approve of German leadership. The German government is a party in the agreement to end Iran’s development of nuclear weapons. While the German government has been less antagonistic than the U.S. government in these efforts, it has still been critical of Iranian violations of the existing agreement.
Germany’s relationship with Russia, where 32% of the Russian public approves of German leadership, has been mixed. These relations have been strained by the country’s criticism of Russian actions in Ukraine and elsewhere in Europe. But, the two countries have continued to move forward on energy cooperation.
Merkel’s model of steady and predictable leadership, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic and other global crises, has brought German leadership approval to new levels of prominence and popularity around the globe. As approval of U.S. leadership has plummeted, approval of German leadership under Merkel is trending upward and is now likely at or near record highs.
However, this high note for Germany could be muted with Merkel’s departure. After 16 years in power, Merkel is set to step down as Germany’s Chancellor in 2021. Who will come after Merkel to lead Germany is unclear, as her chosen successor Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, has withdrawn from the race to head Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union Party (CDU).
The CDU is set to choose a new leader in January, who would likely be in the running to succeed Merkel as chancellor following German parliamentary elections scheduled for September. But, with Kramp-Karrenbauer out of the race, there is no clear frontrunner. Additionally, there are questions concerning public support for the junior partner of the CDU’s governing coalition, the Social Democratic Party raising the potential of political upheaval in the September election.
June 9, 2021
Angela Merkel wasn’t planning to run for a fourth term as German chancellor. What changed her mind was the shock of Donald Trump winning the White House in 2016.
Eight days after that election, outgoing U.S. President Barack Obama came to Berlin to say goodbye. Over dinner at the swank Hotel Adlon, it appears, he pleaded with Merkel to run again so that somebody — she — could hold together the West and the world. Four days after that, Merkel announced her candidacy.
To hold things together. If Merkel leaves a legacy when she retires this fall after 16 years in office, that must be it. No other leader has worked so tirelessly just to keep domestic, European and world politics from unraveling. But is that enough?
Think-tank types have called Merkel the preserver of the “liberal international order.” Some journalists have chosen catchier titles, including “defender of the free world.” Merkel, this narrative goes, saved multilateralism and international cooperation from a global onslaught of nationalism and jingoism.
Tellingly, Merkel herself never endorsed this label. The only time she implicitly nodded to it was during a commencement address she gave abroad in 2019 at Harvard University. Addressing an audience composed largely of America’s progressive elites — her base, as it were — she never mentioned Trump by name. But she urged graduates to “tear down walls of ignorance and narrow-mindedness” and to “take joint action in the interests of the multilateral, global world.”
Back at home, Germans were puzzled. They rarely hear their chancellor orate so simply and emotively. The Merkel they know is the former quantum chemist explaining the math behind the R-factor of viral transmission; the “Mutti,” or mom, reminding them to wear masks; or the policy wonk in chief expatiating on the minutiae of some tome of legislation. In German, she often sounds as if her intention is to be soporific.
Much of the time, it is. Merkel is a quintessentially “post-heroic” leader in a nation that itself has been described that way, after the traumas of causing and losing two world wars. Other leaders may yearn to soar to oratorical heights. Merkel aims to sedate Germans and make them forget whatever they were arguing about.
This trait points to a dichotomy between perceptions of Merkel inside and outside of Germany. Anglo-American journalists in particular have described the chancellor as a mastermind with prodigious powers to effect her iron will — in Brussels, at the G-7 or G-20, during cabinet meetings, wherever.
Her compatriots, by contrast, have generally seen her — here comes a very German phrase — “leading from the center.” Merkel rarely divulges what she thinks before she has to, and sometimes not even then. A veteran of German politics who, like Merkel, is a former East German told me that this behavior is common among people who grew up in the communist dictatorship and never knew which opinion might later get them in trouble.
But there’s another explanation for why Merkel has often led from the center — or from the back, if you prefer: On most issues, she doesn’t have strong opinions. A major criticism from inside her own Christian Democratic Union has been that she’s not really even conservative, and is content to preside over her party’s creeping “social democratization.”
That characteristic made Merkel ideal for the governing arrangements she’s been in. For three of her four terms, or 12 of her 16 years in the chancellery, she’s found herself willy-nilly in coalitions with the center-left Social Democrats. The American equivalent would be an administration shared by Republicans and Democrats: unimaginable. But to somebody whose raison d’etre is holding things together, the challenge is intriguing.
For the most part, the result has been lowest-common-denominator policies so tedious they go unnoted abroad. But if you govern for 16 years, even uninspired policymaking inevitably builds up. And if what you’re governing is the European Union’s largest economy, that has ramifications.
A critique of Merkel’s legacy must therefore start with the things she’s omitted — reforms — and the stuff she couldn’t be bothered with — above all, a vision.
The No-Vision Thing
Germany’s last genuine economic reform happened not under Merkel but under her predecessor, Gerhard Schroeder. At a time when the German economy was called the “sick man of Europe,” he liberalized the labor market, which increased employment but also spawned a big low-wage sector. Separately, Germany’s employers and unions agreed to keep down wages for years to come, especially in export sectors.
This reformed economy is what Merkel inherited in 2005. On the plus side, it led to a long boom in employment that some economists have called a “second economic miracle” (the first occurred in the immediate post-war years).
On the minus side, the same wage restraint not only made German industry more competitive but also distorted the euro area and even the global economy. If Germany had kept the Deutschemark, its currency would have appreciated. But as part of the currency union, the German economy in effect devalued relative to all others. As a result, the country’s current-account surpluses became the world’s largest for several years in a row. Everyone from Brussels to Washington was livid.
Other explanations account for these surpluses, starting with demographics. As large age cohorts approach retirement, they’ve been saving even more obsessively than Germans tend to do. Whenever savings exceed investment in a country, the difference is the current-account surplus.
The right policy would therefore have been to increase public investment, in the hope of boosting private investment as well. But Merkel didn’t, at least until the pandemic. Instead, her party and much of Germany’s mainstream fetishized balanced budgets, even enshrining them into the constitution.
As so often, whether Merkel believed in this fiscal austerity or merely went along with the fad to keep the domestic peace is unclear. But such policies cost Germany a lot of goodwill among its European partners and other allies.
That go-along, get-along pattern has marked the Merkel era. For example, the Social Democrats in her coalition, coming from a long tradition of Russophilia, were keen on a second pipeline carrying gas directly from Russia to Germany under the Baltic Sea. Germany’s partners — including, notably, the U.S., France, Poland, Ukraine and Estonia — oppose the project, called Nord Stream 2, fearing that it will leave Germany more dependent on Russian energy, and eastern Europe vulnerable to geopolitical blackmail. But Merkel defends the nearly finished pipeline to this day.
Even when she appears to act boldly, it’s rarely clear whether the idea was hers or just bubbled up. German society has long been hostile to nuclear energy, and the Schroeder government decided to phase it out. Merkel’s conservative bloc used to be more accommodating to the industry, so her administration initially extended the life of these power plants. Then, 10 years ago, the reactors melted down in Fukushima, Japan. Within a few days, Merkel’s cabinet reversed course again, and agreed to another phase-out, to be completed next year.
Was Merkel so horrified by the disaster at Fukushima that she had a Damascene conversion? Or had she been waiting all along for an opportunity to remove a divisive controversy from German politics by swimming with the mainstream? Berlin’s wonks still debate her motivation. What’s clear is that Germany’s ballyhooed “energy transition” — the country wants to be carbon-neutral by 2045 — is much harder than necessary because nuclear reactors are going offline faster than coal-fired plants.
The list of problems left unaddressed goes on. Little has improved in Germany’s convoluted tax or welfare systems. To the chagrin of NATO allies, Germany’s army remains woefully anemic, and Germans can’t agree on whether or when they should even use it — a debate Merkel has skillfully ducked. The country also slept through the digital revolution: In reporting daily Covid infections, Germany’s health agencies have mostly been using fax machines.
If you judge the outgoing German chancellor by her vision or her reforms, she must count as a failure.
But that standard assumes a classic and heroic narrative of leadership — of New Deals and Great Societies and such. Post-heroic Germans prefer subtler measures. How do leaders respond to crises? Do they prevent the worst? Do they hold society together?
When it comes to managing upheavals, Merkel’s record is hard to beat, at least quantitatively. Starting in her first term, the crises started piling up. The financial one washed up from the U.S. in 2008. A year later it inundated the euro area, almost forcing Greece to exit the currency union and causing bitter rifts between the EU’s north and south. Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president, went rogue in 2014, invading Ukraine. A year later, more than a million refugees walked from the Middle East through the Balkans to Germany. And now there’s Covid-19.
In several of these very different crises, Merkel played an outsized role that amounted to holding together different people, groups or countries. This integrating role wasn’t always readily apparent. During the euro crisis, for example, both southern Europeans and conservative Germans demonized Merkel as the embodiment of all the policies they hated.
The Mediterraneans caricatured Merkel as a Teutonic taskmaster preaching unforgiving austerity to people in desperate need. German conservatives decried her for breaking European rules to pour German tax euros into bottomless Mediterranean pits.
If you squint at the overall situation today, you’ll notice two characteristic aspects of Merkelism. First, the euro crisis was never actually solved, and it may recur. Neither fiscal nor banking union is complete, largely owing to German vetoes. This failure redounds negatively to her legacy: Merkel often manages rather than fixes situations.
But second, the situation never unraveled. No country has exited the currency union, and Greece, Spain and other crisis-hit countries have reconciled with Merkel and the north. Moreover, mainstream German politicians today accept the bailouts that did happen. They’ve even countenanced Merkel’s support for the first joint EU bond issue later this year — a previously taboo initiative that some people see as the germ of a fiscal union.
At a European and domestic level, therefore, Merkel has held things together. What she intuited throughout was how much pain or indignity each of the many interest groups could bear, and how to find new equilibria for compromises. In an alternative scenario without Merkel, the euro area might have fallen apart by now.
She’s performed similarly in the West’s ongoing confrontation with Putin. In talks at Minsk and elsewhere, Merkel — often with French and Ukrainian presidents in tow — has prevented even worse Russian aggression. She’s also kept the fractious EU united behind sanctions against Russia. Merkel, a former East German who speaks Russian, is by some lights the only Western leader whom Putin, a former KGB agent who learned German during his stint in Dresden, respects.
The doozy was the refugee crisis. Merkel’s decision in 2015 not to close the borders to the arriving migrants seemed to break Merkelism’s pattern. It bitterly divided Germans. Many welcomed the huddled masses at the Munich train station, handing out water bottles and teddy bears. Yet others were appalled by the breakdown of order and felt overwhelmed by so many foreigners. Within a year, the rift within her own conservative bloc nearly brought down her government.
Merkel also divided the EU. Uncharacteristically, she didn’t coordinate with partner countries during the refugee crisis. A fault line already in the making between the bloc’s west and east cracked open. Ever since, Hungary, Poland and a few other countries have been sulking, obstructing reforms to Europe’s migration regime and much else.
As is her wont, Merkel incrementally changed course and started tightening migrant policy, with stricter rules on asylum, integration, deportation and more. But the question remains: What made her react seemingly out of character in 2015?
But I don’t believe it was out of character. Despite having few ideological convictions, she has a moral compass whose true north is decency. The daughter of a Lutheran pastor, she is devout, even though she doesn’t flaunt it. I recall a gathering where somebody asked her what she was reading. A book about mercy, she replied. She also feels, as do many of her compatriots, that post-Nazi Germany has a special ethical and historical duty to help those fleeing war.
The Cost of Merkelism
So much centrism — holding things together generally means shoving everybody into the middle — exacts a toll. One charge against Merkel is that she took the passion and confrontation out of politics, blurring the old lines between the major parties and thus accelerating their decline.
Sometimes she did this deliberately. Her (very successful) campaign strategy was described as “asymmetrical demobilization.” She made elections dull enough and distinctions woolly enough to keep many voters at home, especially — and this is the asymmetry — voters for the other guys.
Other times, she artlessly slipped into a technocratic tone that reassured centrist voters but enraged critics on the fringes. During the euro crisis, she presented the hard compromises she’d negotiated as “alternativeless,” an adjective that sounds just as awkward in German as in English.
But in a vibrant democracy, there must always be alternatives, even radical ones. With that rallying cry, a new populist party was born in 2013, called — what else? — the Alternative for Germany. Since then it has moved ever further to the extreme and xenophobic right. In 2017, the AfD entered the federal parliament, and it now polls at about 11%. Populism isn’t a German peculiarity, but Merkel bears some blame for midwifing it.
The Tao of Mutti
So there she is — 16 years, five U.K. prime ministers, four U.S. and French presidents, and uncountable summits later. Somehow she’s outlasted all challengers and opponents, domestic and foreign.
And she’s done more than that. She’s kept those outsized egos, usually male, at the negotiating tables, helped them climb down from their trees, avoided rising to their provocations. At some level, multilateralism is simply that: keeping everybody talking.
One lesson of Merkelism to students of leadership is that keeping your own ego under control when others don’t control theirs is one of the most effective instruments of power. The most vital character trait — one that voters should look for more often in candidates — is low vanity.
This much is certain: Merkel is the least vain world leader today. The photo that captures her best is perhaps this shot of her and her husband, another quantum chemist, on their way to a hike in the Alps, looking far from their best and not caring a hoot. Merkel is no-frills, the opposite of bombast and glitz.
In that sense, too, she’s been the foil to Trumpism in our time. That may be why Trump loathes her — he singled out Merkel, and Germany, for special helpings of his vitriol.
For Merkel, who still raves about her sojourn three decades ago in San Diego and used to see the U.S.-German relationship in almost existential terms, the Trump episode marked a historical rupture. All her assumptions about world politics went topsy-turvy once the U.S., the former protector of Germany, Europe and the free world, suddenly questioned NATO, collective defense, common values — in effect, the West as such. Nobody’s surprised when China and Russia, or even Turkey and Brazil, go rogue. But the U.S.?
As it turned out, Merkel outlasted Trump as well, like so many others. But she knows that Trumpism, and with it nationalism, may return, in four years or eight, potentially leaving Germany and Europe exposed and adrift between the superpowers. Holding things together is always only a temporary achievement. It will fall to others to repeat it, or not.
Will Merkel one day be considered a historic leader? Probably, but in the sense that she was transitional — the last gasp of a passing era. Hers was a time when Germany could still shelter — diplomatically, strategically and militarily — behind the protective shields of the Western Allies of World War II and the alliances that kept Europe safe during the Cold War. It was a time when post-heroism was not only sufficient but also appropriate in the German chancellery.
That era is ending. Germany’s friends, not least the U.S., will expect future chancellors to carry their share of the burdens that come with preserving international order. Germany will have to spend more on its army, and sometimes deploy it alongside friends. It may have to decide, as Merkel never unequivocally did, whether it sides with the West or with a rising and vibrant, but also menacing, China.
If Merkel inherited a reformed and booming economy, moreover, what she’s bequeathing is a country that feels exhausted. For the past 16 years, Germany has prospered largely thanks to the vaunted industrial prowess of its Mittelstand, the medium-sized and family-owned firms that specialize in some niche of the global economy. It’s unclear whether this same country with the same firms — but with a population that will shrink and age — can innovate enough to thrive in a new age of artificial intelligence and permanent disruption.
I will miss Merkel for her decency, her sharp analytical wit, her utter lack of pretension — and, above all, for her knack at keeping people who might otherwise go to war at the same table.
I won’t miss Merkel for her incrementalism when facing the big issues of the next generation: how to deal with global warming, how to keep Europe not only united but also free and safe in a world of aggressive autocrats, and how to modernize our economies so that all their members can flourish even as many traditional jobs disappear.
History’s verdict, I believe, will be that Merkel deserves huge and lasting credit for managing situations that could have become disasters, but that her departure became necessary for a new era to be born. Once Merkel walks out of her chancellery later this year, the post-heroic age in German history will be over. And that will be nothing to fear.
What the world has misunderstood about the German chancellor.
This summer, as the pandemic eases and Europe opens again for business and pleasure, the Merkel era will end. After her 16-year reign as Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel deserves admiration and praise on many counts. When she made history in the fall of 2005 as the first woman to be elected chancellor, unemployment stood at just over 11 percent, and Germany was widely disparaged as the “sick man of Europe.” Doctoral students on both sides of the Atlantic were writing dissertations trying to uncover the roots of Germany’s malaise and were asking what it was about the country that made it so hard to reform. Four Merkel cabinets later, German unemployment stands at 6 percent (and would be even lower if not for the pandemic), and no one doubts Germany’s political, financial, and economic leadership of the European Union.
In an era plagued by erratic and swaggering strongmen like Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, Narendra Modi, and Jair Bolsonaro, Merkel provided a model of rational, steadfast leadership. Indeed, in the early years of the Trump presidency, political observers on both sides of the Atlantic were fond of dubbing her the new “leader of the free world.” Merkel always rejected that honorific, even though she has undeniably been the de facto leader of the EU. But what kind of leadership has she provided for the European project?
Many glowing retrospectives on Merkel’s tenure depict her as Europe’s savior—the steady and reliable pair of hands that steered the EU through a series of unprecedented crises. They recount her role over the past decade along the following lines. When the eurozone debt crisis threatened to overwhelm EU institutions, Merkel overcame domestic resistance to negotiate bailouts for the hardest-hit eurozone members, provided political backing for massive European Central Bank liquidity injections, and paved the way for a myriad of new EU institutions, including a sweeping banking union. When Vladimir Putin’s Russia annexed Crimea and intervened militarily in Ukraine’s eastern Donbass region, she kept her cool and took the lead in negotiating the Minsk agreements. During the refugee crisis in the summer of 2015, she showed her humanity—at considerable political cost—by letting more than 1 million mostly Syrian refugees into Germany. Merkel also helped the EU member states maintain a united front during the Brexit negotiations. She insisted on the sanctity and indivisibility of the four freedoms of movement—in goods, services, capital, and people—that define the EU single market. And during the spring of 2020, she threw her political weight behind the launch of a 750 billion euro ($913 billion) pandemic recovery fund to be financed by joint bonds issued by the European Commission, taking a landmark step toward an EU fiscal union and economic government.
There is some truth to this flattering narrative about Merkel, but it tells only one part of the story. There has also been a darker side to Merkel’s leadership in Europe—both to the specific decision-making tactics she has relied on and to the general principles that have guided her policies.
In approaching Europe’s political crises, Merkel’s main political stratagem has been to procrastinate and dither. Merkel became so famous for this approach that German teens turned her name into a verb—merkeln—which became slang for chronic indecision and for saying or doing nothing on an issue. (“Merkeln” was an early leader in the publisher Langenscheidt’s youth word of the year competition in 2015 but ended up losing out to “Smombie,” a portmanteau for smartphone zombie.) In almost every crisis, Merkel kicked the can down the road—hesitating to take big decisions until the last possible moment and, even then, often agreeing to doing just the minimum necessary to keep things from falling apart. In many cases—from the euro crisis to the rule of law crisis in Hungary and Poland—her strategic inaction led to serious problems festering and becoming even more deeply ingrained.
It wasn’t just her “Merkeling” tactics that proved problematic. Far more troubling was the substance of many of her policies, which we can simply label “Merkantilism,” defined as the systematic prioritizing of German commercial and geoeconomic interests over democratic and human rights values or intra-EU solidarity. From her coddling of Hungarian strongman Viktor Orban as he built the EU’s first autocracy to her active courting of Europe’s geostrategic rivals in Russia and China, Merkel has tended to place German profit and expediency above European principles and values. This was also the case in the eurozone crisis, when EU bailouts were cynically structured to benefit German bankers at the cost of Greek and Portuguese workers. Even at the moment of her boldest moral leadership, the 2015-16 migration crisis, she ultimately failed to convince her fellow EU leaders to craft a humane common policy, resorting instead to an unsavory “money for refugees” deal with Turkey.
Finally, in her 2020 volte-face over Eurobonds in response to the coronavirus pandemic, she made it abundantly clear that she saw it as a one-off gesture of solidarity in response to extraordinary circumstances rather than a fundamental shift toward closer EU fiscal integration. This approach seeks to perpetuate what one could call Germany’s exorbitant privilege in the eurozone, where it continues to benefit from extremely low interest rates due to its safe-haven status in financial markets and from an undervalued euro that boosts its powerful export sector. At the same time, it keeps Europe’s peripheral economies at a consistent disadvantage.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, before Merkel entered the chancellery, the EU had taken to portraying itself as a “normative” power. EU leaders eagerly promoted the idea that while the union lacked the attributes of a traditional military superpower, it could project global leadership by promoting norms such as democracy, rule of law, human rights, and social solidarity. Sixteen years of Merkel’s leadership have made a mockery of such lofty aspirations. She has pushed the EU to appease autocrats rather than championing democracy and human rights and to impose austerity and painful reforms over embracing solidarity and promoting public investment.
In the spring of 2010, when it was clear to bond markets that Greece’s budgetary position was unsustainable, Merkel famously insisted that the eurozone rules had to be geared toward the strong rather than the weak and solemnly pledged two years later that she would not agree to systemic solutions like Eurobonds—jointly issued common debt instruments—as “long as she lived.” The choice facing Merkel and other leaders of the “core” member states was either to bail out “peripheral” members like Greece and Ireland or to allow them to default while staying in the eurozone. The latter option would have hurt Northern European creditors and once again forced Berlin to bail out German banks—a politically unpalatable option. The bailouts in effect functioned as a kind of money laundering and political blame-shifting operation. Core countries like Germany provided financial bailouts—subject to extremely harsh conditions in the form of budgetary austerity and structural reforms—to peripheral governments, which then used that money to pay back German, French, and Dutch banks.
By framing the eurozone debt crisis as the result of fiscal profligacy and lagging competitiveness in Ireland and Mediterranean countries, Merkel encouraged the German population and much of the rest of Northern Europe to think of the euro crisis in terms of a morality tale of Northern saints and Southern sinners. Real leadership would have required acknowledging and addressing the structural roots of the eurozone woes—pointing out that fiscal and banking crises were inevitable in a monetary union where capital flowed freely in the absence of adequate joint mechanisms to coordinate fiscal policy, regulate financial services, or facilitate macroeconomic adjustment. Instead, Merkel’s account and her proposed solutions denied that German banks or regulators held any responsibility for the crisis due to their excessive lending to the periphery during the boom years and simply reinforced popular Northern stereotypes of profligate and lazy “Club Med” governments and populations.
The outcome of her approach was an abrupt reversal of the economic convergence process between North and South that had started in the mid-1990s, as standards of living between core and peripheral countries started to diverge again after 2010. As Northern economies thrived, their exports boosted by a weak euro and their fiscal accounts much relaxed by negative bond yields, Southern economies entered deep recessions that saw a whole young generation mired in record-high unemployment. Southern Europe’s electorates could be forgiven for wondering whether the European integration game was still worth the candle as they flocked to populist and Euroskeptic parties that condemned the bailouts. This lack of solidarity and emphasis on austerity would come to haunt the EU in the spring of 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic, in a cruel twist of fate, first struck Europe in Italy and Spain, two big EU member states that had been forced to cut back the most on public health expenditures during the previous decade.
As much as Merkel was reluctant to show solidarity with struggling democracies in the south of Europe, she was content to see billions of euros in EU subsidies showered on nascent autocracies in the east. Indeed, the so-called leader of the free world has kept a dirty little secret over the past decade: She has been the most important political patron of Europe’s leading far-right authoritarian: Hungary’s Viktor Orban. The primary reason Orban could gradually dismantle Hungarian democracy and replace it with what Freedom House and the V-Dem Institute rate as the EU’s first hybrid regime is that he enjoyed the political protection of Merkel and her Christian Democratic Union (CDU). Merkel protected Orban for both political and commercial reasons.
Though Merkel would never contemplate cooperating with the far-right Alternative for Germany at home, she was happy for the past decade to ally at the EU level with Orban’s right-wing, autocratic Fidesz party. Until this March, Merkel’s CDU and Orban’s Fidesz were allied as members of the European People’s Party (EPP)—the most powerful of the pan-European “Europarties.” Orban’s minions provided votes for the EPP in the European Parliament, helped elect Merkel protégée Ursula von der Leyen as European Commission president, and assisted in the EPP remaining the dominant force in EU politics. In return, she shielded him against EU censure. Though some more principled member parties long wanted Orban out of their group, the CDU and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union, repeatedly blocked his expulsion. Even when he was finally shown the door in March after escalating conflicts with other EPP leaders, Merkel never uttered a negative word about Orban’s assaults on democracy.
But Merkel’s alliance with Orban wasn’t just about party politics; it was characteristically Merkantilistic. Hungary is a major, low-wage, near-shore manufacturing center for German multinationals. Indeed, German automakers are the leading engine of economic growth in Hungary. While Orban attacks the rule of law and his crony capitalists extort small and medium-sized enterprises, his “Audiocracy” gives German car companies like Audi, Mercedes, and BMW the red-carpet treatment. Merkel recognized how good relations with the Orban regime served German commercial interests and hence used her enormous influence to shield him from EU criticism. Orban in turn implemented the autocratic playbook and then held open the door for other aspiring autocrats in the EU, such as Jaroslaw Kaczynski in Poland, another country that plays a key role as a manufacturing center for Germany’s industrial machine. Though additional factors certainly help explain the EU’s failure to stand up to democratic backsliders in its midst, much of the blame can be traced back to the original sin of Merkel’s alliance with Orban.
Merkel not only put profit above principle when it came to pet autocrats inside the EU, but she also did so on a larger scale in her approach to Europe’s geostrategic rivals—the blatantly authoritarian regimes of Russia and China. In principle, successive Merkel governments were guided by the mantra of Wandel durch Handel (“change through trade”)—the theory that deepening economic relations would encourage progressive reforms in Moscow and Beijing. But in practice, they long ago gave up on the change part. This is nowhere more obvious than in Merkel’s determination to pursue the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline despite strong opposition from the EU and the United States. Defenders of Merkel’s approach to the Putin regime would point to the leadership role she played after Russia invaded and annexed Crimea in putting together a sanctions package that thus far has held up remarkably well. However, Merkel has contradicted and undermined any impact of these sanctions on Putin and his associates by continuing to support Nord Stream 2, a project that hands his regime a far greater prize.
Nord Stream 2 will supply gas directly from Russia to Germany through the Baltic Sea, thus circumventing the existing pipeline route that passes through Ukraine and other countries in East Central Europe. The pipeline would enable Russia to cut off gas supplies to Ukraine and other countries in the region while still selling gas to Germany and Western Europe. The project would heighten the risk of a Russian invasion of Ukraine, threaten the security of energy supplies to EU member states like Poland, and undermine the EU’s overall efforts to reduce energy dependence on Russia. So why has Merkel continued to support the completion of Nord Stream 2 in the face of opposition from the United States, allies in East Central Europe, the European Parliament, and even domestic critics such as the Green party? The answer is that Nord Stream 2 promises to deliver abundant low-cost energy supplies to German industry and consumers. Given Merkel’s abrupt decision to phase out nuclear power in response to the 2011 Fukushima disaster in Japan, Germany has become more dependent on oil and natural gas—and Gazprom offers the lowest-cost source of supply. None of this suggests that Merkel sympathizes with the Russian dictator’s worldview—that she is a Putin Versteher, a Putin understander, as some critics have suggested—but she is clearly willing to look past his repeated and brazen violations of international law and human rights norms if it means cheaper energy for German factories and homes.
Merkel has pursued a similar “profits over principles” approach when it comes to dealing with Xi Jinping’s China. Certainly, she has done the bare minimum to signal interest in the country’s human rights situation. She has expressed concerns over Beijing’s assault on democracy protesters in Hong Kong and made oblique references to the Uyghur detention camps in Xinjiang, calling for the resumption of a dialogue on human rights and imploring the Chinese government to respect international norms on forced labor. This spring, her government also backed EU travel bans and asset freezes on a handful of Chinese officials in reaction to new developments in Xinjiang. However, at the same time that Merkel engaged in virtue signaling on human rights, her government used its rotating presidency of the Council of the EU late last year to rush through an EU-China investment deal that critics saw as a major gift to Beijing. The European Parliament has since frozen ratification of the deal in the wake of escalating tensions between the EU and China over Hong Kong and the repression of the Uyghurs, but Merkel—with an eye to the interests of German multinationals keen to pursue opportunities in the growing Chinese market—has continued to support the deal.
On two fronts—in her response to the migration crisis of 2015 and to the recent coronavirus pandemic—Merkel’s leadership was more courageous and less driven by Merkantilistic logic. Yet even on these two issues, she leaves behind a rather mixed and uncertain legacy.
During the summer of 2015, with hundreds of thousands of asylum-seekers fleeing conflict in the Middle East, crossing the Mediterranean Sea into Greece, and then moving westward, Merkel declared an open-door policy. She waived the rules of the EU’s Dublin Regulation that would have allowed Germany to return any asylum-seekers to the first EU country they had passed through and instead said Syrian refugees who made it to Germany would be allowed to stay. Though many Germans worried the country would be overwhelmed by the influx of refugees, Merkel famously declared, “We can do it!” (Wir schaffen das!) Merkel clearly wanted to avoid a humanitarian crisis. She saw that Greece could not cope with the mass inflow of refugees, especially after its highly contentious third bailout had just been approved that summer, and that tensions were escalating among the countries refugees were passing through on their journey west. Though she insisted from the outset on the need for a coordinated EU response, when faced with this crisis she acted alone in deciding that more than 1 million mostly Syrian refugees could travel on to Germany, where they would be welcomed with open arms.
Her unilateral move was compassionate, but it became clear rather quickly that Merkel could not convince her fellow leaders to take a joint approach to the migration crisis. By the spring of 2016, Merkel flew to Ankara to negotiate a deal that would pay Turkey an additional 3 billion euros ($3.69 billion) and offer other incentives in exchange for the country preventing refugees from crossing into the EU. Similar deals were later cut with Libya and Morocco, hardly exemplars of “safe third countries.” While many praise Merkel’s initial burst of magnanimity on refugees, far fewer recognize that she quickly gave up on pressing for a humane common EU migration policy and instead greenlighted an approach in which the EU essentially pays transit countries to hold refugees—often in profoundly inhumane conditions—to prevent them from entering Europe. The EU is no closer today to agreeing on reforms of the asylum rules, including a more equitable distribution of refugees across EU member states, than it was when Merkel called for this back in the summer of 2015. Meanwhile, the tragic reality is that since then, more than 14,000 migrant deaths have been recorded in the Mediterranean Sea.
Merkel once again acted boldly in the spring of 2020, when she saw the rapidly mounting death toll from the coronavirus in Italy and Spain. She decided to join efforts with French President Emmanuel Macron to set up a European recovery fund that would distribute EU grants directly to the member states and would be financed by Eurobonds, or “coronabonds,” issued by the European Commission and jointly guaranteed by all member states. She also agreed to suspend EU fiscal rules, and her government provided a record amount of public support to German companies. As the COVID-19 pandemic laid bare the structural shortcomings in Germany’s economy, from a chronic lack of public investment in infrastructure to severe deficiencies in digitization in its education and health care systems, her government put aside its obsession with maintaining the “black zero” (schwarze Null) for the country’s fiscal accounts by avoiding any deficit spending. Merkel’s Social Democratic finance minister, Olaf Scholz, was given permission to provide Europe’s largest fiscal stimulus to keep the German economy from falling off a cliff.
While some analysts hailed Merkel’s U-turn on Eurobonds as the “Hamiltonian moment” the EU had been waiting for, it is far from clear whether the scale of the fund, called Next Generation EU, will be adequate to meet the post-pandemic challenges at hand, much less whether it will become permanent. Merkel herself was careful to present Next Generation EU to German voters as a one-off injection of EU money, justified only given the once-in-a-century pandemic that hit certain EU member states much harder than others. On top of that, as with previous EU bailouts, the new recovery funds are tied to economic reforms in the countries receiving them as well as subject to oversight by the European Commission, with a so-called “handbrake” that can freeze the funding if a country is not making enough progress with its reforms. This logic maintains the toxic “sinners and saints” dynamic that proved so damaging for the European project during the eurozone crisis of 2010 and could once again trigger a serious backlash if pushed too far. Hence, the future of fiscal solidarity in the EU will depend to a large extent on who takes over from Merkel in the fall of 2021.
Most analysts agree that Merkel would probably have been reelected if she had chosen to run for an unprecedented fifth term in office. She remains Germany’s most popular politician by quite some distance, above all because of her steady economic leadership at home, whatever the consequences abroad. Her CDU successor, Armin Laschet, lacks both charisma and fresh ideas but remains closely aligned with her Merkantilist approach.
If one is looking for a real change in leadership, both in Germany and in Europe, one has to hope that the Greens—now led by the 40-year-old Annalena Baerbock—come to power this fall. If the Greens play a major role in the next coalition, and particularly if Baerbock becomes Germany’s new chancellor, a substantial policy shift on Eurobonds—and a shift away from Merkantilism more generally—is definitely in the cards. Germany’s Greens want to push the country away from its fiscal orthodoxy, stand up to Europe’s nascent autocrats, scrap Nord Stream 2, and take a tougher stance on human rights in China. Ironically, we may one day look back and judge that one of Merkel’s greatest legacies for the EU was to open the door to women’s political leadership in Germany—so that a new leader could emerge who would reverse many of her policies. Though Merkel may not be the savior of Europe some have made her out to be, she may have paved the path for a new leader who could be.