Chancellor Angela Merkel was a successful politician with four consecutive election victories – between 2005 and 2017. On a personal level she was serious and projected integrity. Over her long reign as Germany’s top political figure she was often praised, but Merkel was throughout more of a manager than a visionary. Her often-opportunistic brand of politics became less and less popular. In her last election campaign for the German Bundestag in 2017, her party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), had its worst showing since 1949. With a CDU that under Merkel has continuously moved to the left, and a Social Democratic Party (SPD) that has never credibly reversed its “Blairite” turn in the early 2000s, Germany seemed stuck with a coalition (experimented for the first time in the 2005-2009 term, and repeated in the two mandates between 2014 and 2021) that embodied a big, muddled, centrist compromise – a coalition that showed neither the desire nor the ability to tackle the country’s fundamental challenges.
Public discontent with the last “grand coalition” showed itself in the 2017 election. The governing parties’ vote share dropped by 13.8 percentage points compared to 2013. And even though the grand coalition eventually returned to power, it was severely diminished. While it had held 80% of seats in the Bundestag the previous term – an absolute supermajority – its share shrank to a narrow 56%.
As the grand coalition remained largely the same beast, so did Germany’s political and social problems. The coalition agreement took a tougher stance on refugees, mainly due to an attempt by Merkel’s Bavarian allies, the Christian Social Union (CSU), to placate voters who had migrated to the right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) party. Yet, the agreement failed to provide a sustainable answer to the long-term challenges of immigration and integration. And although more money was spent on infrastructure and broadband, it was not enough to make German businesses ready for an increasingly digital economy.
Merkel, in certain ways, had already gone down in the history books as leaving legacies of sorts. Her decision to phase out all of Germany’s nuclear power plants after the Fukushima nuclear catastrophe in 2011 took even her own party by surprise, not to mention industry chiefs who had been pleasantly surprised that Merkel had earlier done a U-turn (in the opposite direction than in 2011) on abolishing nuclear energy soon after becoming chancellor. While winning plaudits from an anti-nuclear public and environmental lobby, it turned out that Merkel had put in place little to no strategy for ensuring that Germany could speed up the introduction of replacement capacity via renewable energy.
Read also: Life after Merkel
The infrastructural connections between the wind and sea-endowed north and the mountainous south were practically non-existent. The storage for excess wind energy was not in place. Germany clung onto the brown coal mines in the eastern part of the country, not only for jobs but because the country needed energy. The big chemical industries, such as BASF, stood solidly behind the controversial Nord Stream, and Nord Stream 2 pipelines that were designed to ship Russian gas to Germany via the Baltic Sea. The Energiewende (the energy transition) policy had no strategy.
Then Merkel won plaudits for her compassionate decision to throw open Germany’s borders to 1.5 million refugees fleeing the wars in Syria and Iraq in 2015. Again, there was almost no consultation with her party, with her coalition partners, or with the European Commission. There was no big strategic plan put in place to register the refugees, to verify their papers, to house them, or to establish not only an integration program but a way in which they could enter the labor market. It was thanks to overwhelming support for the incoming migrants from civil society, which showed up the incompetence of the Berlin authorities, that things got done.
But Merkel’s comment on her refugee policy first used on 31 August 2015 “Wir schaffen das.” (We can do it) slogan aggravated sections of her own party and the German public. The AfD was catapulted into the Bundestag in the 2017 election because of its anti-immigrant, anti-Islam, and anti-Europe stance. Merkel’s fourth term turned at the very least into a bumpy ride. The CDU made big concessions to the SPD, which retained control of the Foreign Affairs and Labor Ministries while also taking charge of the crucial Finance Ministry. With the CDU and the SPD back in government, the AfD, as the third largest party in the Bundestag, became Germany’s official opposition, and the biggest winner from the election.
Merkel’s main political strategy was to play for time. Merkel became so famous for this approach that German teens turned her name into a verb—merkeln—which became slang for chronic indecision and for saying or doing nothing on an issue. In almost every crisis, Merkel kicked the can down the road—hesitating to take big decisions until the last possible moment and, even then, often agreeing to doing just the minimum necessary to keep things from falling apart.
Far more troubling was the substance of many of her policies, which we can simply label “Merkantilism,” defined as the systematic prioritizing of German commercial and geoeconomic interests over democratic and human rights values or intra-EU solidarity. From her coddling of Hungarian strongman Viktor Orban as he built the EU’s first autocracy to her active courting of Europe’s geostrategic rivals in Russia and China, Merkel tended to place German profit and expediency above European principles and values. In sum, her distinct approach ended up affecting the entire European political landscape, given the centrality of Germany in the EU context.
Regarding the wider international stage, Merkel has since said she had “at no time given in to illusions” that Germany’s Wandel durch Handel (change through trade) policy – the theory that deepening economic relations would encourage progressive reforms in Moscow and Beijing – would really change Vladimir Putin’s behaviour. “I was not naive,” Merkel insisted, arguing that she repeatedly warned that Putin “wants to destroy the EU because he sees it as a precursor to NATO.” If Merkel knew Putin wanted to destroy the EU, why did she allow Germany to become so dependent on Russian energy under her 16-year watch is the question that many people ask.
Merkel does not blame herself for compromising policies on Russia and Ukraine which has provided the seeds of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. She denies that she has any regrets regarding any of her actions.
Defenders of Merkel’s approach to the Putin regime would point to the leadership role she played after Russia, in 2014, invaded and annexed Crimea in putting together a sanctions package that thus far has held up remarkably well. However, Merkel contradicted and undermined any impact of these sanctions on Putin and his associates by continuing to support Nord Stream 2, a project that handed Putin a far greater prize in form of increasing German energy dependency – despite repeated warnings especially from Washington.
So, the Merkel legacy includes Russian energy dependence compounded by ill-timed nuclear phase-out, China trade and investment dependence, as well as an underfunded military and continuing security dependence on the US (despite frequent pledges to help the EU become collectively more “autonomous”). It also includes a very patchy climate policy record, very limited economic reforms, and an underdeveloped digital infrastructure.
During her time as chancellor Merkel hollowed out German politics ideologically. Her style of borrowing policies from other parties was the classic approach of Merkelism. Merkel’s lack of a coherent strategy left Germany unprepared for many of the great challenges of the 21st century.
To be fair, these serious weaknesses also reflect a fundamental problem in German politics and German foreign policy, caused by the lack of a credible alternative to the direction set by the Merkel era. Much of Merkel’s domestic success was built on capturing the political centre ground. Her extraordinary international reputation is an excellent example of the dangerous power of mythmaking.