An 18 year-old German casting their first ballot in this election would have been two years old when Angela Merkel was sworn in as the country’s first female Chancellor. George W. Bush was still US President, Tony Blair was still the British Prime Minister, and the global financial crisis hadn’t happened yet.
After 16 years of what seems like near-constant crisis, Merkel, who is also the first chancellor to have been raised in eastern Germany, is stepping down with public approval ratings of around 65 percent. She’s not even running and yet her departure is still heavily influencing the country’s current election campaign. Her Christian Democrat (CDU) party chose their current candidate, Armin Laschet, partly because he represented some continuity with her brand of pragmatic, centrist politics.
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Green candidate Annalena Baerbock is known to have a similar eye for the nitty-gritty of policy detail. Social Democrat candidate Olaf Scholz, currently leading in opinion polls, even released a cheeky Merkel-inspired ad. It said “Er kann Kanzlerin,” or “he can be Chancellor,” while using the feminine version of the world “Chancellor” instead of the male: “Kanzler.” It was probably the biggest sign yet that all three candidates – even those not from Merkel’s CDU – are trying to convince German voters they are her natural successor.
Das ist groß. pic.twitter.com/ls0q6xxjeU
— Thorsten Bischoff (@thobi75) August 26, 2021
“Everyone is trying to portray themselves as Merkel,” says political scientist and foreign policy specialist Marcel Dirsus. “Everyone is trying to out-Merkel each other.”
Merkel already made history the day she was elected, but she could soon be set to do it again. Coalition talks will start after Germans vote on September 26th. If a new government hasn’t formed by December 17th, she’ll overtake Helmut Kohl as the longest-serving Chancellor in modern German history. Having dominated German and European politics for 16 years, she’ll leave a permanent mark on the country’s political psyche.
What will that mark look like? German politics observers we spoke with say that, in short, Merkel will be remembered as a calm and rational crisis manager, a shrewd political tactician, and a natural consensus builder – who lacked a bold vision for where she wanted to take the country and continent.
A rock of stability in a turbulent time
To be fair, most of Merkel’s chancellorship was heavily driven by unpredictable events. From the financial crisis, euro crisis, refugee crisis, the resurgent populism of Brexit, Donald Trump, and the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), and finally the coronavirus pandemic as well as catastrophic flooding this summer – the Merkel Era has hardly been a golden age.
Merkel’s scientist-politician approach to policy at times made her particularly well-suited to a crisis-ridden era. “She doesn’t lead ideologically, but rather in a fact-oriented way,” says Oliver Wittke, a Bundestag Member (MdB) from Merkel’s CDU. For him, this approach was especially evident during Covid-19. “She took scientific council and implemented it into concrete political measures, that found wide acceptance within the population.”
As an unprecedented global health and economic crisis, the current Covid-19 pandemic would test Merkel’s experience in a way no previous event had. Merkel watchers say it revealed a very different chancellor than Germans and Europeans saw during the euro crisis – when Stern magazine labelled her “Die Eiskönigin,” or “the Ice Queen” for her tough eurozone bailout conditions and unemotional style.
“There were a lot of things about it that were unprecedented,” says Berlin-based AFP correspondent Deborah Cole of Merkel’s televised speech in March 2020 – the only one ever given by a German Chancellor outside of the annual New Year’s message. “She spoke in a very personal and emotional way about what this means. She very early on acknowledged that she was asking for sacrifice on the part of the German people, but for the best cause possible.”
For Christian Odendahl, the Berlin-based Chief Economist at the Centre for European Reform, Covid-19 also showed how Merkel’s crisis management evolved over time, learning from past mistakes. “She misunderstood the euro crisis as a debt crisis when it was so much more than that,” he says. “The difference in how she reacted to the euro crisis and how she reacted to the pandemic is, I think, quite telling.”
From the Chancellor who was often accused of lecturing Europe about the evils of public debt and overspending during the euro crisis, Covid-19 saw Merkel open government coffers in unprecedented ways. Her government passed domestic stimulus packages worth over a trillion euros, and put up the largest single share of money for the EU’s 750 billion euro recovery fund.
“It was a very bold, forward-looking, Europe-focused crisis response – undertaken very quickly,” says Odendahl.
As someone expected to also provide leadership on a European level, Merkel’s Covid-19 response also gave Germans and Europeans another glimpse of her savvy crisis-negotiation skills. “People underestimate how difficult it is to get anything done in Brussels,” says Dirsus. “Merkel is someone who is very good at forging compromise, and she’s shown that at a European level.”
Beyond crises: Merkel’s missing policy legacy?
Perhaps tellingly after 16 years though, it is not yet clear what Merkel’s lasting policy legacy will be beyond her responses to disastrous events. Does Merkel have a signature policy the way Kohl had the euro or Gerhard Schröder had labour market reforms?
“She has not, at each election, set out a course and said ‘this is where I’d like to see Germany in four years,’” says Cole. “It’s been more about problem-solving than ‘where can we go as a society?’”
“At a time when we have many large policy questions, when we look at Europe, when we look at globalisation, when we look at the climate. When we look at how to prevent crisis rather than simply manage it, we haven’t seen the same achievements during her time in office,” says Dr. Ursula Münch, Director of the Academy for Political Education in Tutzing.
“The fact that our public train operator is in a dismal state, that is a legacy of Angela Merkel, full stop,” says Odendahl. “The pandemic also put into focus the dismal state of German digitalisation in public administration. A lot of effort had to be put in to compensate for that.”
On foreign policy, Dirsus says Merkel hasn’t done enough to explain to ordinary Germans how harsh the world around them is becoming, with a rising China and an aggressive Russia.
“It’s not the early 90’s anymore,” he says, calling Merkel’s pragmatic China policy her largest foreign policy failure. “Not only did she fail to stand up to Beijing, but she made Germany more dependent on China. That’s especially tragic because China has become more aggressive towards its neighbours and to Germany’s allies.”
The Merkel Era may well go down in history as a pivotal time when Germany’s strength, both economically and politically, increasingly propelled it – and its Chancellor – closer to a central place on the world stage during a turbulent time.
She will also be fondly remembered by many for her no-nonsense communication and way of dealing with world leaders, her sense of humour and honest approach. You’d be hard pushed to find another leader who’d apologise and acknowledge a mistake so quickly, like Merkel did during this year’s short lived Easter lockdown debacle plan. For that she earned respect.
But due to the longer-term nature of some of Merkel’s blind spots, some policy failures might not become clear for several years.
“We may eventually look back on it as a time when we could have done more or had more options. We may say we had more options on climate, that we had more options on anti-pluralist tendencies in the EU. We may ask why we didn’t use those options,” says Münch.