Angela Merkel plans to retire after 16 years as Germany’s chancellor. What does the void she will leave mean for Europe?
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German Chancellor Angela Merkel will leave office in the coming months with her popularity intact among voters and widely admired beyond Germany as a chancellor who deftly steered her country—and Europe—through numerous crises.
Whoever replaces her will help lead the continent into a new era. Often dubbed the “Queen of Europe,” Ms. Merkel was seen abroad not just as the leader of Germany but in many ways of Europe, helping guide the European Union through a series of financial and political concerns and ensuring her country maintained a high profile on the international stage. It remains to be seen whether the next chancellor will match her global standing.
Difficulty forming a coalition after the September 2021 German federal elections means Ms. Merkel could easily surpass her former mentor, Helmut Kohl, as the longest-serving post-war chancellor.
Such a scenario would give Ms. Merkel the chance to broker a new round of so-called “Normandy format” talks with Russia, Ukraine and France in an effort to quell the conflict in eastern Ukraine—negotiations she pushed for during a trip to Kyiv.
“I advocate working on having another meeting at the political leadership level with myself, the French president and of course the Russian and Ukrainian presidents,” she said during that trip.
One person is especially nervous about Ms. Merkel’s future role: French President Emmanuel Macron.
Angela Merkel’s exit from the EU stage she dominated for 16 years has handed Mr. Macron an opportunity to take up the mantle of European leadership and press on with his plans for a more independent Europe.
Not so fast, diplomats from countries across the European Union say.
The energetic French leader has sought to bring a clarity of strategic vision that the bloc under Ms. Merkel at times lacked.
But in a post-war Europe founded on consensus, Mr. Macron’s direct and abrasive style, coupled with a willingness to go it alone in a bid to shape EU strategy, means he will struggle to fill Ms. Merkel’s shoes, senior diplomats across the region said.
“It’s not like Macron can lead Europe alone. No. He has to realize that he has to be careful. He can’t expect people to jump on the French bandwagon,” one diplomat posted to Paris from one of the EU’s founding nations said.
“Merkel had an extraordinary place. She was listening to everyone, respectful of everyone,” the diplomat added.
One thing for sure is that the future of a post-Merkel Germany is uncertain. As one diplomat speaking about a more sensitive topic facing the EU put it, “The question is: without Merkel in the room, are we going to be able to solve them [negotiations on climate policies]? I think we can…but it will definitely become more difficult.”
Ms. Merkel, who today remains personally popular for having helped Germany through a string of crises, announced in 2018 that she would not go for a fifth term. Her outgoing government will remain in office until a successor is sworn in, a process that could take weeks or even months. There are no formal restrictions on her powers during this time, though Ms. Merkel is a consensus seeker and previous chancellors have not made radical decisions during this window.
The outgoing chancellor fully intends to use her time after the election to press on with foreign policy initiatives, government officials say.
Ms. Merkel appeared close to tears during an address to mark the 31st anniversary of reunification that may be the last before she steps down. She said the freedoms that came with German reunification 31 years ago had brought “so many new opportunities” for people from the former Communist East, where she grew up, but that many of them suddenly “found themselves in a dead end.”
During the speech, the chancellor stressed that Germans must remain focused on democracy, saying that even today, the achievement of democracy should not be taken for granted.
“Democracy isn’t simply there,” Ms. Merkel told listeners. “Rather, we must work for it together, again and again, every day.”
According to the leader of the reunified nation, the merger of East and West Germany happened “because there were people in East Germany who risked everything for their rights, their freedom and a different society.”
Ms. Merkel also cautioned that German unity “isn’t a finished process,” recognizing that many fellow former East Germans have experienced having to continually justify being part of the country.
With a voice that betrayed her emotion, she recalled how a journalist had written last year she “wasn’t a true born German” after she told reporters in 2015 that “if we have to start apologizing” for showing a friendly face during the refugee crisis “then this is not my country.”
“Are there two kinds of Germans and Europeans—the original and the acquired, who have to prove their affiliation every day anew and can fail the exam with a sentence like the one in the press conference?” Ms. Merkel asked.
Angela Merkel took power in 2005—when George W. Bush was U.S. president, Jacques Chirac in the Elysee Palace in Paris and Tony Blair British prime minister.
She has become a feminist icon after 16 years in power even though the world’s most powerful woman has only belatedly accepted that label as she prepared to step down. She has also conceded that gender equality is still a long way off.
“She is admired by women all over the world, this is her main legacy. That a woman showed what she is capable of and does this with dignity and resolve,” German feminist activist Alice Schwarzer told Reuters.
A rare woman in the upper echelons of her conservative, male-dominated Christian Democrats (CDU), Ms. Merkel, 67, long avoided casting herself as a feminist and has only reluctantly supported some policies pushed by feminists such as quotas for women in boardrooms.
“She hasn’t spent the last 16 years carrying out great feminist deeds. To be fair she had quite a few other things on her plate,” Ms. Schwarzer said, noting Ms. Merkel had supported policies that helped women like expanding state-funded childcare.
“The very fact of her existence is a feminist statement.”
In 2017, Ms. Merkel avoided saying whether she considered herself a feminist when urged to do so at an event with then International Monetary Fund director Christine Lagarde and Ivanka Trump, daughter of President Donald Trump.
“I don’t want to decorate myself with a title I don’t actually have,” Ms. Merkel said back then.
However, as her time in power draws to a close, Ms. Merkel—who has a doctorate in quantum chemistry—has reconsidered her position.
“I have thought my answer through more and so I can say yes: we should all be feminists,” she said to cheers at an event with Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, whose TED talk entitled “We should all be feminists” went viral in 2013.
At the premiere of a film that tells the story of prominent female politicians in post-war West Germany, Ms. Merkel said she was disappointed that women still account for only 31 percent of seats in parliament.
“We have not yet achieved equality between women and men in Germany. Much remains to be done,” she said.
Ms. Schwarzer recalled that Germany was not really ready for its first female chancellor when the CDU narrowly won the election in 2005, with her predecessor Gerhard Schroeder saying publicly she was not up to the job.
Yet today, Ms. Merkel is positioned to overtake former mentor Helmut Kohl to become Germany’s longest serving chancellor.
Ms. Schwarzer said she is impressed by how Ms. Merkel has held her own among powerful men: “There is a joke in Germany: a small boy asks, mum, can men also become chancellor? One person proved it and now it is out there and no one can take that away now.”
Women and girls say the impact of Ms. Merkel—who is often known as “Mutti,” or mum, although she has no children herself—has been profound in a country where traditional gender roles are only changing slowly.
Lia, a 9-year-old girl in Berlin, said she would like to be chancellor one day. Asked what she would do, Lia said: “Work, I would just get on with it, and earn money!”
Her mother Nancy added: “[Ms. Merkel] has so much strength and influence on so many people and I do think especially women.”
Angela Merkel has long urged Germans to forge a common future that draws on their diverse backgrounds, hearkening back to the 2015 decision to admit 1 million refugees that was a defining moment of her long chancellorship.
This act of opening Germany to people fleeing war and poverty in the Middle East was the most controversial act of her time in power.
Asking “What is my country?” Ms. Merkel answered, “each and every individual must be able to feel heard and belong.”
She called for a Germany “in which we shape the future together,” adding: “Be open to encounters, be curious about one another, tell each other your stories, and tolerate your differences. This is the lesson from 31 years of German unity.”
Germany’s diversifying population has naturally led to diverse political representation.
Hakan Demir, who smiled broadly as he stood in front of Germany’s majestic parliament building on his first official day of work as a national lawmaker, is just one example of such change.
“My grandfather would have been mighty proud of me, and my parents are proud as well,” said Mr. Demir, 36, taking a moment to remember his family’s roots in Turkey, from where his grandfather came in the early 1970s as an untrained “guest worker” to help build roads and houses in Germany.
Mr. Demir, a member of the center-left Social Democratic Party, is one of hundreds of people who ran for Germany’s 735-seat lower house of parliament with backgrounds as immigrants or parents or grandparents who immigrated to the country. The number who won in the recent vote has made the Bundestag more diverse and inclusive than ever before.
The chamber now includes at least three people of African descent—up from one in the previous parliament. After years of stagnation, the number of female lawmakers also has gone up again, including two who identify as transgender women.
Among the newly elected immigrants is Awet Tesfaiesus, 47, the first black woman to serve in parliament. Ms. Tesfaiesus, who fled from Eritrea with her family as a 4-year-old, is a member of the Greens who was elected to represent the Werra-Meissner constituency in central Germany.
Other new Social Democratic lawmakers are Armand Zorn, 33, who was born in Cameroon and came to Germany at age 12, and Reem Alabali-Radovan, 31, the daughter of Iraqi migrants.
Many who initially came as temporary workers decided to stay and bring their families, giving Berlin and other cities in western and southwestern Germany large immigrant communities.
Under Ms. Merkel’s watch, there are now about 21.3 million people with immigrant backgrounds in Germany, or about 26 percent of the population of 83 million.
More than 500 candidates with immigrant roots ran for parliament this year. While it is not yet clear how many were elected, the number is expected to be higher than in all previous parliaments.
“There is more openness now, and the idea that diverse groups should be found in politics and be directly represented,” University of Trier political scientist Uwe Jun said. “This will change politics.”
About 60.4 million people in the nation of 83 million are eligible to elect the new parliament, which decides who will be the next German chancellor. Recent polls point to a neck-and-neck race between Ms. Merkel’s center-right Union bloc and the Social Democrats, with the latter marginally ahead.
The Social Democrats’ candidate, current finance minister and Vice Chancellor Olaf Scholz, has seen his personal ratings climb amid error-strewn campaigns by his rivals, the Union’s Armin Laschet and the Greens Party candidate, Annalena Baerbock.
Voters appear underwhelmed by the choices. Whoever finishes first is expected to get a historically low share of the vote, with polls showing no party expected to get 30 percent support. The lowest score so far for a winning party is the Union’s 31 percent in 1949, which also is the bloc’s worst showing to date.
But observers say that Ms. Merkel bears at least some responsibility for the dire straits that her party is now in.
“Merkel has focused on governing in recent years and neglected her party work,” said Klaus Stuewe, a political scientist at the Catholic University of Eichstaett-Ingolstadt.
After stepping down as party leader in 2018, Ms. Merkel largely stood back while the Christian Democrats underwent a series of painful leadership contests. The turmoil detracted from its efforts to lay out a coherent party program—which for years was focused largely on Ms. Merkel’s persona—and many voters lost faith in its competence in key areas such as foreign and economic policy.
It is believed that Germany’s next chancellor will need to address one of the biggest criticisms of Ms. Merkel’s step-by-step approach to politics: that it failed to keep pace with the big changes happening in the country and beyond.
While some viewed Ms. Merkel as an anchor of stability, particularly in turbulent times, others saw in her a source of stagnation.
In-demand reforms—from the digitalization of schools and government services to the greening of Germany’s heavy industry—were hardly attempted under Ms. Merkel. And despite frequent, vocal protests to speed up Germany’s response to climate change, she made sure the country’s powerful auto industry was shielded from tough measures.
The blame for the Union bloc’s recent poor showing has also been placed on the party’s candidate, Armin Laschet, a state governor whose gaffes contrast with Ms. Merkel’s image as a calm, professional stateswoman.
Mr. Laschet is largely a centrist in Ms. Merkel’s mold, backing her welcoming stance toward refugees and other migrants. Still, he has been keener than the outgoing chancellor to relax restrictions during the pandemic and is treading a fine line between offering continuity and promising renewal.
Even after Mr. Laschet won the Union bloc’s nomination in a hotly contested battle in April, Ms. Merkel remained aloof.
“For a long time, she did not campaign for Laschet at all, supporting him only at the very end before the Bundestag election, when it was already too late,” said Mr. Stuewe.
Olaf Scholz and his center-left Social Democrats, the narrow winners of Germany’s parliamentary election, underlined their hopes of talks soon on forming a coalition with the two parties that are likely to be kingmakers.
Mr. Scholz pulled his party out of a long poll slump to win.
“Voters have spoken very clearly,” Mr. Scholz said after his victory. “They strengthened three parties—the Social Democrats, the Greens and the Free Democrats—so this is the visible mandate the citizens of this country have given: These three parties should lead the next government.”
Mr. Scholz and others were keen to dispel concerns that lengthy haggling and a new, multiparty government would mean unstable leadership in Europe’s biggest economy.
“My idea is that we will be very fast in getting a result for this government, and it should be before Christmas if possible,” Mr. Scholz told reporters in Berlin. “Germany always has coalition governments, and it was always stable.”
The current German vice chancellor is an experienced and pragmatic politician whose calm, no-frills style is in some ways reminiscent of Ms. Merkel’s. Calling for continuity in foreign policy, he said a priority will be “to form a stronger and more sovereign European Union.”
“But doing so means also to work very hard on the good relationship between…the European Union and the United States,” he added. “The trans-Atlantic partnership is of [the] essence for us in Germany…and so you can rely on continuity in this question.”
The poor results for the Union bloc are unlikely to tarnish most voters’ favorable views of Ms. Merkel as she stays on as a caretaker chancellor—possibly for several months—while Germany’s coalition talks play out, said Julia Reuschenbach, a political scientist at the University of Bonn.
“As long as the formation of a new government lasts, she will presumably remain the seasoned, experienced politician who now needs to lead the country through a transition period,” said Ms. Reuschenbach.
If this holds true, it could be said Angela Merkel’s politics and spirit of compromise will outlive her reign. This would be fitting as the “Queen of Europe” leaves behind a legacy for Germany and the rest of the continent that could be as timeless and noble as a Roman marble bust—undoubtedly a model for future kings and queens to fashion themselves after.
This article contains information from Reuters and The Associated Press.