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For more than 16 years, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has stood at the heart of European politics. As the country’s first female chancellor, she steered Europe’s largest economy — and, by extension, the rest of the continent — through cycles of crises, from the shock of the global recession to the risk of euro-zone collapse to the 2015 migration surge. She earned a reputation for serious work, stable leadership and having a gift for political compromise. When Donald Trump took presidential office, she was cast briefly as the great defender of the Western liberal order, a reputation burnished by an unforgettable 2018 picture of Merkel glaring across the table at Trump like a stern schoolmaster about to scold a truculent pupil.
But we are now in the deep twilight of the Merkel era. In less than two weeks, Germans will elect a new government and Merkel will have no part in it. Her political party, the center-right Christian Democrats, may for the first time in a generation find itself sitting in the opposition absent its talismanic leader. And for all the respect and admiration Merkel commanded at home and abroad, she is poised to exit the stage with a checkered record.
Though she styled herself as a champion of climate action, Germany remains the world’s biggest producer of brown coal. Her tough stewardship of the euro-zone debt crisis that began in 2009 made her a villain in Greece, which had to accept biting austerity measures mandated by financiers to the north. Merkel won plaudits in 2015 for her decision to let in a million asylum seekers from countries including Syria and Afghanistan, even as other European countries tried to stop the influx of migrants and refugees from reaching their borders. But amid a political backlash, she tacked to the right. Her pragmatism could not stave off a surge in support for the ultranationalists and the shocking entrance of the far-right Alternative for Germany party into the country’s parliament.
Merkel “leaves a complicated legacy,” wrote my colleague Loveday Morris in a piece that also touched on Merkel’s soft touch with autocratic powers to the east. “Some applaud her humble, consensus-driven political style. Others see a lack of bold leadership, particularly in the face of a more aggressive Russia and rising Chinese power.”
For all the solidity of her rule, Merkel is now giving way to a situation of genuine political uncertainty in Germany. None of her would-be successors can fill her shoes, and the latter years of her tenure have accentuated open questions around Germany’s place within Europe and its relationship with other powers, from the United States to China. “Her success in sustaining a sense that Germany could be insulated from global chaos has fostered an atmosphere of drift in which vacuous statements of concern are considered an adequate substitute for the ability to take concrete action,” wrote Alexander Clarkson in the New Statesman.
Ahead of Germany’s Sept. 26 election, the Christian Democrats, led by the gaffe-prone and less popular Armin Laschet, have slumped dramatically in the polls. In terms of favorability as a politician, Laschet is polling behind Annalena Baerbock of the Greens and Olaf Scholz, whose center-left Social Democrats spent years as a junior partner in a coalition with Merkel’s political alliance but soon could be in the driving seat.
“The biggest problem for Laschet is that he has not been able to convince voters that he can do the job like Merkel,” Julia Reuschenbach, a political scientist at the University of Bonn, told the New York Times. She added that Laschet “comes across as uncertain, flippant and unprofessional.”
German viewers deemed Scholz the victor of the penultimate debate between the leading candidates Sunday. But commentators bemoaned the insularity of the conversation, which featured jabs over various domestic scandals but little discussion of broader European or foreign policy. The next German leader will have to grapple with the problems Merkel leaves behind, including crises over the rule of law in other parts of the European Union, as well as a growing sense that Europe must do more to secure its own interests on the world stage.
Merkel’s legacy of stable, sound leadership runs alongside a course of events that shows the limits of both her influence and her equivocating instincts. “The true consequences will only become apparent in the coming years,” noted German newsweekly Der Spiegel. “Chinese dominance on the world stage; the increasingly drastic effects of climate change; a Europe that is breaking apart along a fault line between liberalism and illiberalism; new refugee streams stemming from unresolved conflicts around the world. In the face of such challenges, the Merkel era could soon come to be seen as a period of calm that we will soon be pining for.”
“Merkelism is no longer sustainable, and Germany’s next chancellor will have to find another way forward,” Piotr Buras, senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), told Today’s WorldView in an email. “Merkel may have adroitly maintained the status quo across the continent over the past 15 years, but the challenges that Europe faces now — the pandemic, climate change, and geopolitical competition — require radical solutions, not cosmetic changes.”
Still, Merkel remains a broadly popular figure. According to a new ECFR study that Buras co-authored, pluralities surveyed in 12 European countries believed there would have been more conflict in the world had Merkel not been in power. When posed with the hypothetical question of whom they would choose as “president” of the European Union — Merkel or French President Emmanuel Macron — majorities in most countries opted for the German chancellor.
“With her technocratic leadership style, she appears to have won the trust of Europeans much more than Macron has with his visionary speeches,” noted the report.