Today marked the end of an era in global politics as Germany’s Angela Merkel left office after 16 years in power.
A former scientist who grew up in communist East Germany, Merkel outlived four US presidents, four French presidents, five British prime ministers, and eight Italian premiers.
During her near-record tenure, the country’s first female chancellor was credited with handling a series of crises, defending Western values in turbulent times, and being a role model for women.
But experts told Euronews that while Merkel’s consensual style of government drew wide praise, there was certainly “room for criticism” when it came to some of her policies.
As Merkel bows out, Euronews looks back at the key legacies that defined her chancellorship over the past 16 years — and how much of it her successor Olaf Scholz is likely to embrace.
1. The first woman and East German to become Chancellor
Angela Merkel was “both the first female and first East German” to become chancellor, said Rafael Loss of the European Council on Foreign Relations, noting that both were “structurally underrepresented” in the country.
The impact of her 16-year tenure on advancing the representation of both groups is visible in the incoming government.
“We see with the new German government that the cabinet is gender-balanced, that women will run foreign policy with Annalena Baerbock at the Foreign Ministry and Christine Lambrecht at the Defense Ministry,” Loss told Euronews.
The German policy expert also noted a “significant representation of East Germans in the cabinet” and added that the coalition agreement included “progressive language on representation.”
Matthias Matthijs, an associate professor of international political economy at Johns Hopkins University, told Euronews that Merkel’s leadership contradicted all stereotypes on women.
Her calm, rational style of government offered a sharp contrast “in a world of strongmen, of swaggering populists — Boris Johnson, Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro, even Emmanuel Macron to some extent with this kind of macho, Jupiterian ambition,” he told Euronews.
2. A skilled crisis manager on the European stage
Merkel’s legacy as a crisis manager is perhaps the one she is most widely credited for.
“In the context of the European Union, Angela Merkel has earned herself a certain reputation for being someone who’s very well prepared, who stays up late, talks to everyone and works all sides until a consensus deal is on the table,” Loss told Euronews.
“You could see this in the financial crisis of 2008, 2009, 2010; you could see it in the migration crisis in 2015; in her ability to keep Europeans on the same page with respect to sanctions vis-à-vis Russia over the annexation of Crimea and invasion of Ukraine.”
“That is something that probably not everybody expected back in 2014, that she’d be able to forge this consensus and then have Europeans stick with it for seven years now,” Loss explained.
The coronavirus pandemic marked another defining moment of Merkel’s chancellorship, especially when she decided to break away from the so-called “frugal states” to embrace jointly issued EU bonds in the spring of 2020 as part of the recovery plan known as Next Generation EU.
On the downside, Loss said, “Merkel never really articulated a vision for the European Union, unlike Macron.”
“She’s a sort of brilliant tactician, but a strategic vision was lacking and that made it difficult for other European countries sometimes to position themselves vis-a-vis Germany and German interests.”
3. A sea change on Germany’s approach to welcoming refugees
Asked in a recent interview with German broadcaster Deutsche Welle which crises she found the most personally challenging, Merkel identified the coronavirus pandemic and “the large number of refugees who arrived, which I don’t like to describe as a crisis — people are people.”
“Yes, we managed it,” she said.
According to Matthijs, Merkel’s handling of the refugee crisis will remain among her most important — and largely successful — legacies.
“Let’s not forget, six years ago today, a lot of people were saying ‘this is a major social experiment.'”
“You have over a million young, mostly male Muslim refugees from Syria, and you’re going to integrate them within a few years into a society that’s overwhelmingly Christian and older. And in the end, it worked,” Matthijs told Euronews.
“Think of all the things that could have gone wrong. And so that was in the end, a major gamble, I think.” “And in hindsight, it paid off and it made Germany much more comfortable as a country of immigration compared to, let’s say, the US, France or the UK, where it has a much more negative connotation,” he illustrated.
In her interview, Merkel acknowledged that there were problems.
“We did of course see that not everything went ideally, and there are serious incidents — if I think of the New Year’s night in Cologne, which perhaps has stuck in people’s minds,” Merkel added. She was referring to the 2016 New Year celebrations, where hundreds of women complained of being groped and robbed, mostly by groups of migrants.
“But on the whole, we have wonderful examples of successful human development,” she said, pointing to migrants who have finished high school in Germany.
She admitted that the overall picture on migration remains challenging, with the issues that cause people to flee still unresolved and the European Union having failed to establish a single migration and asylum system.
4. Detering political extremes at home
One often-overlooked legacy of Merkel is that political extremes — both on the right and on the left — lost ground during her chancellorship, Matthijs told Euronews.
At the September 2021 election, both far-right AfD and far-left Die Linke lost seats in parliament compared to 2017.
For Matthijs, Merkel’s “rational, consensus-driven” style of politics explains “why the extreme left and the extreme right is not that appealing” to many of her fellow citizens.
“In the end, she found a governing style and a governing path that, I think, for most Germans was acceptable,” the scholar told Euronews.
This legacy of keeping German politics moderate extends to her own CDU party, Loss said.
“Maybe part of a positive legacy is actually to have been able to keep the CDU as a moderate conservative party, especially when you contrast that with the hard-line turn that other conservative parties in Europe and in the United States have taken over the past couple of years,” he explained.
Loss noted however that Merkel’s 2015 decision on refugees “almost tore them apart” and ” that’s still a division that’s festering within the CDU.”
5. ‘Room for criticism’: short term gains vs long term vision
While Merkel received praise for her style of government, “when it comes to her legacy on policies, there’s room to be a lot more critical,” Matthijs told Euronews.
One “more negative legacy,” the scholar said, is that “she was very comfortable with autocrats, whether they were in the EU or whether they were not in the EU.”
“So whether it was Putin in Russia, whether it was Xi in China, she always put Germany’s geopolitical commercial economic interests ahead of human rights and democracy,” Matthijs said.
The same holds true for her relationship with Hungary’s Viktor Orbán or Poland’s Jarosław Kaczyński, according to him.
“She had the standing to be much more principled on this very early on and instead chose to ‘keep the European family together’, which caused divisions down the line and I think they’re going to be much harder to solve because of it,” the scholar told Euronews.
Merkel often made “expedient choices in the sense that they were short-term gains, but it built up longer term problems.”
Merkel’s critics on her left point to little progress on social policy, Loss told Euronews. The expert noted there was “surprise over the extent of progressive social policy that we find in the new coalition agreement regarding abortion rights, regarding LGBTQ issues, regarding citizenship laws, minimum wages, etc.”
“It’s not radical in any way, but compared to how little movement there was under Angela Merkel on a lot of these issues, it seems revolutionary,” he said.
On climate, Merkel’s legacy appears to be mixed too, according to experts.
While she will ultimately be remembered for her 2011 decision to phase out nuclear energy in the country following the shock of Japan’s Fukushima disaster, the move was marked by multiple U-turns, Loss noted.
“Germany had agreed already earlier under Gerhard Schröder to phase out nuclear energy,” the expert recalled but Merkel reversed the decision until Fukushima made her change her mind. In all, “it cost German taxpayers a whole lot more money in terms of compensation for the energy providers,” Loss noted.
“I think most climate experts would agree that there’s a bit of a disconnect between how Angela Merkel presented herself early in her chancellorship as this sort of climate chancellor” and the reality of her policies, he went on.
“Germany, for instance, has been missing its own greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets now for a couple of years,” Loss said.
Earlier this year, the German Constitutional Court struck down Angela Merkel’s new climate law because it was insufficient.
“They argued that even though it set Germany on a path to carbon neutrality, the law put off the harshest measures towards the end of the 30-year timeline, thus putting an undue burden on future generations in terms of limiting their freedoms,” Loss recalled.
“So to some extent, maybe here Angela Merkel’s legacy is lacking in the sense that she didn’t really prepare Germans for the seriousness of the climate crisis,” the expert told Euronews.
6. Scholz set to embrace Merkel’s legacy — with a few tweaks
Scholz seems poised to embrace a vast part of Merkel’s legacy both in style and substance, according to the experts interviewed by Euronews.
“If you look at her successor, I think that’s the biggest compliment to her legacy. I mean, Scholz from another party, basically fashioned himself to be her worthy heir. He said, ‘I’m more like Merkel than [CDU’s candidate] Armin Laschet’,” Matthijs noted.
“Scholz even held up her signature pose,” he went on, when he appeared at a photoshoot for Sueddeutsche Zeitung magazine hands clasped in front of the stomach, thumbs and fingertips touching to form a diamond shape.
Loss also noted that both Scholz and Merkel shared “a managerial style to politics, rather than an ideological one.”
Matthijs recalled that Scholz has been Merkel’s finance minister for four years.” They’ve worked very closely together,” he said.
Loss noted the differences in the more progressive social policies outlined by Scholz’s new government.
At the same time, according to Matthijs, “Merkel herself, in the end, is a centrist Christian Democrat who wants to see higher minimum wages, social safety nets and things like this.”
“So what Schulz is setting in motion are I think trends that were already underway incrementally in her last four years.”
One thing that’s likely to be different is foreign policy, especially on China and Russia.
“The naive engagement with China is ending,” Matthijs said. “The idea that all investment is good is now being questioned,” he told Euronews, citing for instance the consequences for security or data privacy by Huawei investing in 5G.
“Number two, you see a slow move away — although temporarily you won’t see much of it — of energy dependence on Russia,” Matthijs went on.
“So Nord Stream 2 will go forward. But I think this is being justified by SPD, by Scholz as well.”
“In the short run, getting rid of coal and fossil fuels will probably require us to be more reliant on natural gas, some of it from Russia. But that’s just to cover the period in between where we will go towards more wind energy, more solar, more hydrogen power and things like that.'”
“The fact that Annalena Baerbock is the foreign minister and has repeatedly talked about climate policy in the German context, in the European and the global contexts also signifies that climate foreign policy will play a much bigger role in Germany than it used to,” said Loss.
On the European level, “there will be more openness towards what many economists call completing the economic and monetary union,” said Matthijs.
“So a slow, slow progress towards completing the banking union, maybe even a way to think about making Next Generation EU funding more permanent.”
“In the past, it was very clear with the CDU that this was a red line. Right now, it’s something to be discussed,” he concluded
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