What Did Merkel Achieve During Her 16 Years at Germany's Helm?
By Jamie Dettmer September 14, 2021
When Germany's long-standing chancellor, Angela Merkel, steps down following federal elections later this month, it will mark the end of an era, not only for Germany but also for the European Union.
In power since 2005, the 67-year-old Merkel has been the third longest-serving chancellor in German history, beaten in the longevity stakes only by Otto von Bismarck in the nineteenth century and in the twentieth by Helmut Kohl. And she has been the country's only woman chancellor.
For 16 years German politics has revolved around Merkel â€” and so too to a large extent has the politics of the European Union.
She has been widely seen as a steadying influence on the fractious bloc, the grown-up politician who could assuage and tamp down disputes, often finding a way out of seemingly intractable disputes between the 27 member states, frequently by delaying decisions or shelving them.
It was to Merkel that Britain's David Cameron looked to secure a deal that he hoped would help win the 2016 Brexit vote â€” and it was a Conservative British successor, Boris Johnson, who appealed to Berlin to help break an impasse in withdrawal talks between London and Brussels, which avoided a complete breakdown in relations between the EU and Britain.
Merkel helped to steer the bloc out of the 2008 financial crash and the subsequent euro crisis when the bloc's currency was under severe threat. "If the euro fails, then Europe fails," Merkel warned as the economic storm gathered force. She took the lead in foisting tough austerity measures on the indebted countries of southern Europe, while at the same time backing aid and loans for struggling EU member states. She also supported the European Central Bank in buying large quantities of government bonds and bringing interest rates to zero, allowing then ECB chairman Mario Draghi to fulfill his promise to do "whatever it takes" to save the euro.
Even Yanis Varoufakis, the former Greek finance minister, who fought Merkel over the austere bailout terms Berlin forced on Athens, credits Merkel with saving the European currency.
"Crisis management has always been her forte, whether saving the euro during the global financial crisis of 2009, keeping Europe together during the refugee crisis, or now coping with the pandemic," Judy Dempsey of the think tank Carnegie Europe, noted recently in a commentary on Merkel's legacy.
But the Carnegie analyst also describes Merkel's record as mixed and labels her legacy "ambiguous." On the foreign front "her legacy, however, is inconsistent, especially with regard to Russia and China and some of the EU's own member states," she says. For some critics she has not been tough enough with Russia and has been too ready to allow profits and business to define relations with Beijing.
Robert Terrell, a scholar of modern Germany at Syracuse University in New York, also sees a mixed record, although he says assessments of Merkel "will continue to change as shifting social contexts inform the politics of memory."
"In Europe, the Great Recession and the European Debt Crisis pushed Merkel into the unenviable position of trying to stabilize the economy of over two dozen states," he told VOA. While her push for austerity measures was well received in Germany, it led to a degree of cultural chauvinism among Germans towards the Greeks. "In Greece, she remains divisive, with some Greek citizens blaming her for one of the bleakest periods in recent memory," he says. Euro-skeptic sentiment has also increased dramatically in Italy and Spain.
While decisive on the Euro crisis, much of Merkel's record is marked by what her aides dubbed "strategic patience." In 2015 "the German dictionary publisher Langenscheidt announced 'merkeln' â€” a verb form of Merkel's name â€” was in the running for the 'Youth Word of the Year.' It meant to do nothing out of caution, or to be overly deliberative. Whether simply her political style, or a conscious effort to avoid the gendered critique of impulsiveness, Merkel made a point of cautious decision making," says Terrell.
Migration and nationalism
She wasn't cautious, though, when it came to the migration crisis of 2015-16, when hundreds of thousands of asylum-seekers from the Middle East, sub-Saharan Africa and Central Asia entered Europe. Merkel critics say her initial open-door policy encouraged the migration waves that buffeted Europe and roiled the continent's politics, fueling the rise of populist nationalist parties.
"The refugee crisis was another watershed moment during her chancellorshipâ€”one that will undoubtedly play a key role in shaping her legacy," says Terrell. "Merkel's decision to welcome well over a million refugees beginning in 2015 left the nation divided. Proponents of the Willkommenskultur â€” or 'welcoming culture' â€” helped furnish arriving refugees with money, supplies, and emergency accommodations. Others resisted, making the refugee crisis a catalyst for increasingly radical nativist sentiment," he says.
It also fueled tensions and clashes with other EU member states, especially with nearby Central European countries, Poland, Austria and Hungary.
Move to centrism
On Germany her record looks less mixed. "Under Merkel's helm, Germany changed. She moved the conservative, male-dominated Catholic CDU party to the center, which is no easy feat for someone brought up in communist East Germany and whose father was a Lutheran pastor," says Dempsey.
"She abolished military conscription, eventually came around to accepting single-sex marriage, gave parents more flexibility when it came to taking leave for newborn children, and supported the introduction of a minimum wage," says Dempsey.
Her supporters also credit her for closing Germany's 17 nuclear power stations, a policy reversal following Japan's Fukushima nuclear disaster, a brave political move in the face of the country's powerful energy lobby. Although her foes â€” and some Green lawmakers â€” have also pointed out that closing the power stations has meant Germany has had to resort to an excessive use of coal adding to greenhouse emissions.
But much like her performance on the foreign policy stage, some critics note that for much of Merkel's 16 years in office she preferred on the domestic front to do as little as possible, to manage and tinker rather than define broad visionary goals and to try to reach them.
"Merkel's years were one of stasis and of betting big on the indefinite continuation of the country's manufacturing and export-driven growth model," says Dalibor Rohac, an analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank. "Yet, without growing productivity, the perpetuation of the status quo is not a guarantee of limitless economic prosperity, especially in an environment in which Germany's international value chains might be under threat from the looming de-globalization," he warned.
He says Merkel's accomplishment was to have avoided conflict as much as possible the past 16 years. For Germans that has been a reassuring gift.
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