Understated expectant smart funny at times but not infallible
One thing is certain. Many will miss her. When in the German or European political debate there is once again a need for calm, for a moderate vote, for a new compromise. When once again there is a need for the example of a politician who shows that you can also exercise power without excessive frills, without exorbitant privileges, without questionable friends. If there is a need for Bodenständigkeit.
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After sixteen years of chancellorship and four cabinets, Angela Merkel’s political career will soon come to an end. Once she ruled with the small liberal FDP, three times she formed a coalition with the Social Democrats of the SPD. In 2017, it looked like she would say goodbye. The story goes that just after Brexit and the election of Trump, President Obama, among others, called on her to stay – as a democratic bastion in a political era marked by populism.
With Merkel’s departure, political canonization is lurking. It’s not necessary. Merkel is not a saint, Merkel also has controversial decisions to her name. She is a special politician.
Sixteen years is a long time – Merkel became chancellor before the introduction of the iPhone. In the Bundestag elections next week, for the first time, young Germans will go to the polls who can’t remember that Germany ever had another chancellor, who can’t remember that Germany was ever ruled by a man. The question is whether it is healthy for a political party or for a democratic system if the way to the top has been barred for so long? From when does continuity stand in the way of innovation? In recent years, has Merkel done enough about the climate, the political issue that will probably shape the lives of these young voters?
During those sixteen years, many crises knocked on her door. The 2008 financial crisis, which spilled over into the euro crisis. The Russian annexation of Crimea and Russia’s meddling in Ukraine in 2014. And of course the refugee crisis of 2015—when she spoke the words that will stay with her forever: We want to buy that. This was followed by the rise of right-wing populism with Brexit and Trump abroad and the rapid growth of the radical right-wing AfD at home.
In the euro crisis, she kept Greece on board, possibly saving the currency union. The reforms that this required were drastic and also damaging. They made her a bogeyman in Greece anyway. Other decisions from the time were also controversial, such as the requirement that banks should contribute to financial rescue operations, which turned out badly for Italy and Spain. In those countries, she was unable to explain properly why the currency union was organized in such a way that the export country Germany benefited greatly from it, while the South had to make severe cutbacks.
In the refugee crisis, she showed a Germany with a human face, but in doing so took her country by surprise. The AfD, which started as an anti-euro party, became an anti-immigration party and gained a stable position in the Bundestag in 2017, even though many parties do not want to cooperate with it. Conservative voters who had had enough of Merkel have since swerved to the right. The Christian Democrats have done everything they can for decades to prevent just that.
The final phase of her career was marked by the pandemic, floods and the fall of Kabul, for which Germany was also unprepared. The pandemic once again showed how bureaucratic and old-fashioned (because not sufficiently digitized) Germany is. Last summer’s floods killed 180 people.
In sixteen years she surprised her audience twice: with the refugee crisis and with the abolition of nuclear energy after the disaster in Fukushima. Her trademark was precisely a combination of taking it easy and waiting, of pragmatism and expertise. Her style made many Germans feel that the country was in good hands with her; Merkel gave them no reason to fear a revolution. But a revolution is now necessary in view of the climate – certainly in the car country of Germany.
In any case, Germany and Europe will soon be confronted with a vacuum and it remains to be seen who will fill it. In any case, as German chancellor you have come a long way if a European opinion poll shows that in a hypothetical election, Europeans would rather see you as president of Europe than the French president. In Germany itself, some people say they feel insecure just thinking about her imminent departure.