Germany’s Merkel leaves a formidable legacy

Angela Merkel was Germany's first female chancellor who provided a steady hand over the course of her 16 years.



September 23, 2021 - 9:43 AM

Germany’s Angela Merkel will stand down from office on Sunday. As Germany’s first female chancellor, Merkel has provided steady leadership over the course of her 16 years in office.

One of the most emblematic political photographs of recent times was taken during a G7 summit in Canada in 2018. Leaning forward across a narrow table with hands outstretched, a grim-faced Angela Merkel confronts Donald Trump, who sits with his arms folded, refusing to meet her eye. Emmanuel Macron and the Japanese prime minister, Shinzo Abe, flank the German chancellor as she glowers down at the American president.

As Ms. Merkel prepares to stand down as chancellor following next Sunday’s German election, after 16 years, the image sums up her recent role as a bulwark of liberal values in turbulent times. Amid resurgent nationalism and deep political polarization across the west, the longest-serving and most influential European leader of the 21st century has been a vital standard bearer for a consensual, rules-based way of doing politics on the world stage. The political virtues she has embodied during her long reign — patience, tolerance, a lack of stridency and an aversion to showmanship — have come into their own, as culture wars proliferate on all sides. Her famous decision to keep Germany’s borders open to Syrian refugees in 2015 demonstrated a generosity of spirit and compassion to which all western democracies should aspire.

From left, Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, President of the European Council Charles Michel, US President Joe Biden, Japan’s Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Italy’s Prime minister Mario Draghi, France’s President Emmanuel Macron, President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen and Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel pose for the family photo at the start of the G7 summit in Carbis Bay, Cornwall on June 11, 2021. (Leon Neal/POOL/AFP/Getty Images/TNS)

BUT BEYOND the upheavals of recent years, the overall legacy of Germany’s first female chancellor is more complex and enigmatic. Domestically, Merkelism became synonymous with an ecumenical and managerial politics of the center ground. The global financial crash tempered Ms. Merkel’s neoliberal economic instincts, and during 12 of her 16 years as chancellor she led a Christian Democrat-Social Democrat “grand coalition.” This hobbled her center-left opponents’ attempts to present themselves as a distinct alternative and allowed her to reap the political rewards of successful policies such as a new minimum wage — which was an SPD condition for entering into coalition in 2013. Though Ms. Merkel’s political convictions were difficult to pin down, a certain ambiguity, flexibility and calculated blandness became the secret of her success. Four victorious federal elections testified to the efficacy of an inherently cautious approach. But latterly her writ has not run in the poorer east, where the rightwing nationalists of the AfD have enjoyed significant success amid growing disillusionment.

The deliberately low-key style worked for many of the crises that came Ms. Merkel’s way. But some challenges could have benefited from greater imagination and strategic ambition. In Europe, her consensus-building skills mostly have been an enormous asset, especially in ensuring fiscal solidarity between European Union member states during the Covid-19 pandemic. But the punitive austerity forced upon southern European states during the European debt crisis in the early 2010s — insisted upon by Ms. Merkel and her then finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble — was deeply misguided and anti-democratic, and failed to address real flaws in the economic architecture of the eurozone. The backlash helped launch an era of political turbulence and populist insurgencies, and brought nationalism back into fashion.

More recently, Ms. Merkel’s Green party opponents have been right to criticize the slow timetable for ending the country’s dependence on coal, and the lack of financial firepower to enable a fair green transition. In relation to China, whose appetite for German exports underpinned her economic model, she has pursued a policy of profitable accommodation that appears out of step with changing geopolitical times.

Nevertheless, Ms. Merkel’s status as one of the most formidable, skillful and assured political leaders of modern times is beyond question. In the 21st century, no other leader comes close. From when she was working as a quantum physicist in the former East Germany, she has been an avid reader of history. During the course of a length of tenure bettered only by Otto von Bismarck, she perhaps had a chance to shape her own times more than she did. But her reassuringly stable and constructive presence in the politics of the west will be badly missed.

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