MERKEL’S CURTAIN CALL

MERKEL’S CURTAIN CALL

On November 22, 2005, Angela Merkel was sworn in as Chancellor of Germany. Merkel, the first woman to hold the position, emerged over the ensuing decade as one of the strongest forces in European politics. She has also been named the most influential woman in the world and the European Union’s de facto leader.

Angela Merkel was raised and educated in East Germany before the reunification. She received a doctorate in quantum chemistry and only entered politics after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, working as a research scientist. She was elected to the Bundestag in the first election since unification in 1990 after serving as a spokeswoman for the caretaker East German government. The first chancellor of the reunified state, Helmut Kohl, appointed her to successive positions in the cabinet and championed her career. Merkel became the party’s Secretary-General and then its Leader after Kohl’s Christian Democratic Union was voted out in 1998. Merkel became Chancellor in 2005 after a close election and two weeks of talks with the CDU’s coalition partners.

HER DEFINING MOMENTS

Throughout her career, Merkel has had many defining moments – that was seen by her citizens and the rest of the world as positive, bold, and sometimes controversial – from her stand on refugees to her stern steps put on Greece in the midst of the economic crisis. For leading Germany and the EU through the financial crisis, Merkel will be positively remembered. On the other hand, her decisions on refugee policies might be up for debate amongst many bodies of thought.  However, according to observers, when it comes to Merkel’s long time in power, doing politics rationally, and standing firm on what she believes is equitable for all, she will be remembered affectionately.

Merkel not only thought about her own strength and career, but also had a bigger perspective for the issues. The tenure of Merkel has been marked by her desire for a strong EU and the crises she has experienced. After the financial crisis of 2008, ruling from the center-right by European standards, she attracted criticism from the left because of the impression that Germany was implementing extreme austerity measures on Greece. In 2015, she made the controversial announcement that Germany will process asylum applications for Syrian refugees, including those pushed out of Hungary by far-right Prime Minister Viktor Orban and were arriving elsewhere in Europe.

For several years, the characteristic diamond-shaped hand gesture of Chancellor Angela Merkel, known in German as the ‘Merkel-rhombus,’ was the first thing most Germans appeared to associate with the physical presence of the legislator. Indeed, some of her party’s 2013 campaign posters have featured her signature gesture. In a way, it symbolized the unflappable, stubborn personality of Merkel.

Merkel will definitely go down in history as the leader who announced at the height of the August 2015 refugee crisis: “We can do it!” (“Wir schaffen das!”) With these terms, Merkel suggested that Germany was open to accepting hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers from Syria and neighboring war-torn regions into Germany. While Merkel has since attempted to correct errors made during and after that period, many Germans remain deeply divided on the issue of immigration and asylum seekers.

UNDER MERKEL’S LEADERSHIP

Germany’s economy prospered under Merkel’s reign, even in spite of the 2007-08 global financial crisis. Germany, still regarded as the “sick man of Europe,” as recently as 2005, has re-emerged as an economic growth driver. German unemployment dropped by half over time, and tax revenue increased. And Germany’s decision to introduce a balanced budget clause in 2009 represented a paradigm change that practically paid off: the country went from a public deficit to a surplus. During politically volatile times, Merkel’s influence became most obvious.  Merkel stepped up to the plate when the EU failed to take decisive action during the eurozone crisis, on the Greek bailout, and after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula. In Berlin, she met several heads of government and state for talks. Its ability to turn German capital into a hot spot of European diplomacy has impressed local and worldwide media.

Merkel has proven to be a professional conflict manager and has been consistently celebrated as the most influential woman in the world. She is held in high regard by the people of Germany, including in the former East Germany where she was brought up. But Merkel, the daughter of a Protestant priest, has remained modest and unpretentious in spite of her fame.

Merkel modernized her faction, Germany’s conservative right Christian Democratic Union (CDU). Young, female members of the party were encouraged to grow up the ranks, transforming the party noticeably. Merkel, meanwhile, has remained true to herself, and her honesty has been respected by her fellow citizens. Many Germans started to affectionately refer to her as “Mutti,” an affectionate German word for mother. But some argue that Germans have lost their appetite for good, democratic discourse by relying on Merkel’s quasi-maternal leadership position.

Merkel also turned her party and her governments into powerful decision-making structures, sacrificing opinion plurality in the process, and giving a negative taint to her quasi-maternal persona. She forced through the abolition of compulsory military service and the removal of Germany from nuclear energy, thereby sidelining some of her party’s more conservative leaders. Indeed, German political scientist Wolfgang Merkel (no relationship) recently argued that Merkel’s CDU moved from being a center-right to a solely centrist party, leaving a right-wing political void that was filled by the far-right German Alternative (AfD).

IMPLICATIONS OF MERKEL’S DEPARTURE

The model of steady and predictable leadership by Merkel, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic and other global crises, has taken the approval of German leadership to new levels of worldwide prominence and popularity. As the United States’ leadership approval has fallen, German leadership approval under Merkel is trending upwards and is now likely to be at or near record highs.

With Merkel’s exit, however, this high note for Germany may be muted. Merkel is expected to step down as Germany’s Chancellor in 2021 after 16 years in office. It is uncertain who will come to lead Germany after Merkel, as her preferred successor, Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, has retired from the race to head Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union Party (CDU).

She would usually retire next year if Angela Merkel were an ordinary employee. As it is, nobody knows whether she will stay until her current chancellorship hits its expected end in 2021 or if she will step down in advance. Her new alliance, which includes the Social Democrats of Germany (SPD), is considered fragile, and the approval ratings of her own party have reached a historic low. Right now, speculation is rife that, fed in part by her recent trembling episodes, she may resign early for health reasons.

LEAVING BEHIND A LEGACY

Germany has improved under Merkel’s helm. She brought to the center the conservative, male-dominated Catholic CDU faction, which is no easy feat for someone raised in East German Communism and whose father was a Lutheran pastor.

She abolished military conscription, finally approved single-sex marriage, gave more freedom to parents when it came to taking leave for newborn children, and advocated the implementation of minimum wages. But her two biggest domestic actions, closing nuclear power plants and opening the doors of Germany to more than 1 million refugees, shook her party and demonstrated her true grit.

FUTURE OF GERMANY

Supporters of Merkel claim that she is a pragmatist at heart, one who has held the EU together through crises over the years and who doesn’t want to burn bridges. The pragmatism has secured four consecutive elections for her party. But if Laschet handles the CDU’s fifth term and if the Greens become coalition partners with the CDU, the legacy of Merkel’s continuation will not be guaranteed. Inside NATO, an organization in which Merkel had no interest, the Greens would press for a more assertive approach towards China and Russia and a more active position in defense and security issues. They will also press for greater European political and economic integration and an EU that will do far more to protect internal and external principles.

All, however, is not gloomy. It seems that the grip of the ultra-nationalist, right-wing parties that seemed to threaten the whole European project has decreased in the last few months. In the last year, several path breaking consensus-based moves forward have been accomplished. In the US, intense fragmentation, Brexit challenges and the carrot of fiscal stimulus have forced even the most Eurosceptic governments to ‘hang in’ for the moment. But Europe is likely to encounter a power vacuum and a state of flux for a period of time as the new German leader finds his/her feet that could take up most of this and early next year and his staunchest European ally, Macron, comes up for elections in 2022. Will the vacuum complicate the implementation of the huge recovery fund and the major nascent moves towards fiscal law reforms? Only time will tell.

By Orobi Bakhtiar

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