By Joe Rossiter
After 16 years as German chancellor, Angela Merkel’s fourth and final term will end after Sunday’s federal election. During her time in office, she has consistently overcome crises at home, in Europe and around the world; her political skill evident in the fact that she has chosen to step down, rather than being forced, a rarity among politicians.
As she leaves office, the stability and familiarity of Germany’s first female chancellor will exit too, seen already in the tight race between Mrs Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU), the centre-left SPD and the Greens for this month’s election. Party leaders of each have been reluctant to stray too far from the outgoing chancellor, with the SPD’s Olaf Scholz pictured striking Mrs Merkel’s signature diamond hand gesture and running ads branded with Er kann Kanzlerin, he can be chancellor, using the female term for the office.
How did she sustain such a prolonged period as chancellor in a volatile political period, surviving through crises varied and severe? What is her legacy as voters prepare to elect her successor? The answers give clues to the German political psyche, as well as Mrs Merkel’s own unrivalled political skill.
Many world leaders can be defined by a single major event: Theresa May by Brexit, George Bush by 9/11 and its aftermath. With Angela Merkel, it is difficult to choose any one crisis. Her first major test came with the 2008 financial crash and the following European sovereign debt crisis, which culminated with huge controversy over the Greek bailout plan. As would become a theme over her chancellery, Mrs Merkel, after taking time to reach a decision, stood firm on her view that harsh measures were required in Greece to maintain the integrity of the eurozone, repeatedly using the term alternativlos, no alternative.
It is this pragmatism that so often won out in Mrs Merkel’s decision-making, even if, as the daughter of a Protestant minister, her moral compass sometimes interfered. Take the huge influx of migrants and refugees in 2015, where the chancellor initially endorsed a soft border policy and welcomed over one million asylum-seekers into Germany. This was arguably guided by compassion over political calculation, widely supported until a spate of sexual assaults in Cologne on New Years’ Eve 2015, many committed by individuals later confirmed as asylum-seekers.
As public opinion on the policy began to turn, so did the chancellor, adopting several restrictive measures, including a cap on the number of refugees, proposed by Horst Seehofer, a harsh critic of her policy in the Christian Social Union (CSU), the CDU’s more conservative Bavarian sister party. For some time, Mrs Merkel’s iron grip on the CDU/CSU structure was threatened, weakening her and precipitating her resignation as party leader in 2018.
This event was uncharacteristic for the chancellor: a rare reversal of policy and a decision taken based on emotion. Once tied to a position, she generally remained steadfast for better or worse. During Brexit negotiations, recognising that to give Britain a favourable deal would be to the benefit of anti-EU parties across the continent, she spearheaded the simple rhetoric of maintaining the integrity of the bloc and its freedoms, unresponsive to numerous charm offensives.
This stubborn streak has occasionally backfired, for Germany if not for the chancellor herself. In 2011, after the Fukushima nuclear disaster, Mrs Merkel’s government announced the immediate shutdown of eight of Germany’s 17 reactors, with the rest scheduled to close by 2022. Such a kneejerk reaction has had negative consequences: in the first half of this year, coal was the largest source of energy to the country’s system, lagging behind peers on the world stage. The lack of action on the climate has also prompted a surge in support for the Greens, boosted by the devastating floods earlier this year.
In recent years, the CDU has also been losing votes to the rightwing Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), which became the first far-right party to win representation in the Bundestag since the end of the war. The party was born in 2012, almost a direct response to Mrs Merkel’s favoured phrase on the Greek bailout crisis: alternativlos. These outcomes show key flaws in her strategy, including a complacency that personal popularity among voters would sustain her policies.
Overall, however, Mrs Merkel’s tough negotiating stance combined with a thorough diligence has served her well, particularly through coalition talks over her four election victories, though it was during the pandemic that these skills have most recently shone through. A chemist before her political career, the chancellor managed the first phase of the crisis soundly, coordinating the response across Germany’s federal states and keeping the virus under relative control. Though cohesion has been more fraught in recent months, a successful – if delayed – vaccine rollout has abated a further wave of the virus
These key events and many others beyond stand as testament to traits described in nearly every media profile of Mrs Merkel. Her pragmatic, managerial and technocratic style stands in contrast to other, brasher leaders and while this has contributed to incredible political longevity, questions remain over how effective they have been beyond sustaining office.
According to confidants, Mrs Merkel’s guiding political motto is In der Ruhe liegt die Kraft, in quiet there is power, evidenced by her frequent refusal to mould policy debates herself, leading from the back. Throughout her chancellery, she has been content to allow public opinion to form before intervening, an asset when cajoling potential government partners or carefully managing a bloc of over 500 million people, but detrimental to issues such as the climate debate. Though nuclear power, for example, is not popular among German voters, the country is not currently on target to meet its obligations under the Paris Climate Accords, a fact which will endure if coal remains the largest energy source.
This unconventional and sometimes flawed strategy extends to Mrs Merkel’s complex relationship with her public. She ended a 2013 leaders’ debate with the words ‘Sie kennen mich’, ‘You know me’, though this is not truly accurate: far more precise would be ‘You trust me’. This is a value that surrounds the chancellor at both a personal and professional level. She has kept a tight group of confidantes since her ascendance to the CDU leadership in 2000, most of whom still work for her today. Hers is an administration low on drama, entrusted by the public to apply a thorough, common sense-led process to each issue, almost transcending policy by being founded on the steely, determined character of its leader.
The question of how to judge Mrs Merkel’s leadership is therefore complex. Her legacy is surely one of stability: clear and knowledgeable leadership, if perhaps slow and somewhat passive at times. As the Merkel era ends, Germany may realise a sentiment expressed by the chancellor in July: “You usually only miss something once it’s no longer there”.
Mrs Merkel is still extremely popular: hypothetical polling shows that she would most likely win a fifth term if she wished. Her party, however, looks to be consigned to opposition and may shift to the right if leader Armin Laschet is forced out. Friedrich Merz, the pro-business social conservative and fierce Merkel critic, finished narrowly second in the 2018 and 2021 leadership elections: he may have a central role in diluting her moderate legacy.
Despite this volatility, Mrs Merkel has surely etched her name firmly into German history; her era will stand forever as a lesson to future leaders: ignore consensus-building and discipline at your peril. While she can be criticised for any number of decisions, views or actions, her longevity, combined with her measured, methodical style often delivered meaningful compromise. As the Merkel era slips away, the contrast may well be stark.
Image: World Economic Forum via Creative Commons.