Germany’s election on Sept. 26 ended without a clear winner, but one thing at least is certain: Angela Merkel will soon exit the political stage she has occupied for the past 16 years, kickstarting much debate about her legacy for Germany, and for the world.
Comparisons with her mentor and predecessor Helmut Kohl, who led Germany through reunification, are as inevitable as they are unfair. Her critics say that, though a formidable historical figure, she has accomplished nothing that can equal the leadership of Kohl. But the demands of their eras were entirely different. To understand that is to recognize Merkel’s lasting achievement.
In 1990, a heady sense of opportunity in both West and East Germany created the public support that Helmut Kohl needed to take on one of the most ambitious and complex global governing challenges since the end of World War II. Over the Merkel era of the past 16 years, by contrast, Germans (and Europeans generally) have needed a thoughtful, flexible problem-solver to guide them through a debt emergency, a surge of migrants from the Middle East, and the deadliest global pandemic in a century. In the process, Angela Merkel helped save the European Union. That’s an accomplishment that deserves lasting respect.
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Convinced that a strong and cohesive E.U. would be good for her country, the German Chancellor bridged the gaps and cut the deals, sometimes over the objections of her own finance minister, that helped Europe’s most deeply indebted countries survive the 2010-2012 sovereign debt crisis. Merkel kept her word that Germany would lead the way in coping with the 2015-2016 surge in migrants by welcoming more than one million desperate people into her country. In response to the pandemic and the need for a bold economic recovery plan, she shifted German opinion on the need for common European debt.
All of these decisions remain highly controversial. Her critics say they have fed public cynicism about the E.U. and fueled the populism that has threatened in recent years to poison its politics. But without Angela Merkel, and her willingness to take on more costs and risks so that others could take less, the E.U. might have lost much more than Britain.
Her leadership has also been good for most Germans. Some 70 percent now say they’re happy with their economic circumstances. Much of that success might have happened without her, powered by new opportunities for Germany to export to China after it joined the World Trade Organization in 2001, and by cheap labor provided by workers from the former Warsaw Pact countries of Eastern Europe, which joined the E.U. just a year before Merkel became chancellor.
But Merkel’s ability to manage emergencies has helped keep Germany’s economic engine humming, and one of the results is a surge in the number of jobs across Germany, especially for women. Unemployment is now near its lowest point of the Merkel era. In addition, a balanced budget law enacted in 2009 has helped keep public debt low.
There is much more Merkel could have done, to be sure. By balancing its books, Germany has invested far less than it might have in the transition from carbon-based to renewable energy. While some credit Merkel for using Japan’s 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster to transition Germany away from nuclear power, the country’s carbon emissions remain high by European standards.
Though Merkel remains popular, her party doesn’t. She leaves with an 80 percent approval rating even as her party is in historic decline. The vote share of the center-right alliance she led slid from 41.5 percent in 2013 to 33 percent in 2017. In the Sept. 26 election, the CDU-CSU fared even worse, securing just over 24 percent and finishing narrowly behind their center-left rivals the SPD. Whoever emerges as the next chancellor will be seen by most Germans as a pale shadow of her leadership.
Not only is Merkel a tough act to follow in Germany, there is no one else now in Europe who can match her tenacity and resilience either. In particular, French President Emmanuel Macron, facing a re-election campaign next year, inspires too much mistrust, including in France, to inherit Merkel’s ability to guide combative European leaders toward agreement.
Fortunately, Merkel has strengthened Europe itself by showing other leaders that compromise is possible for the good of all. That makes future crises less likely – a legacy worth celebrating.