Berlin, Oct. 29 2018 German Chancellor Angela Merkel announces that she will not candidate as the leader of her Christian-Democratic-Party in December and that, in the national elections in 2021, she will not run as German Chancellor again.
With this news Chancellor Merkel not only surprised, but scared many people around the world. For 13 years she has been the steady hand that governed Germany,and for almost as long she has been seen as the leader of the entire block of European countries and since Donald Trump sits in the White House more and more people have looked to Merkel for leadership in the NATO, the UN and the world.
Since her announcement at the end of October, many articles have been published by German and international newspapers raising the same question: ‘What happens next?’ Merkel certainly left a big hole in the political environment of Germany and even if more and more people over the past years have started to criticize her actions and decisions, nobody can deny that she led the country through some tough times. However, today, with Merkel leaving the political spectrum, we should not only look at the future and worry, we should also look at the past and see how far we have come.
In 2005 the CDU won the election against the Social Democrats with a narrow majority and Angela Merkel became not only the first female Chancellor of the country, but also the first Chancellor coming from a city in former East Germany. This sent two strong message on two different fronts:
It sent a strong message to women all over the world to succeed in their fields, even, or maybe especially, if it is a field usually dominated by men
It was a great statement for the German process of reunification between the West and the East.
At the time most people and international observers believed that her coalition would be short-lived and that today, 13 years later, we would hardly remember her. These critics could not have been more wrong: in her political career Merkel has outlived 3 US presidents and 100 fellow European leaders, who came and went, while Merkel stayed in Berlin.
This is particularly fascinating, considering that Merkel did not govern the country in the easiest moments; She was Chancellor during the 2007/8 financial crisis, during the 2012 euro-crisis and during the 2015/16 migration and refugee crisis. In all these difficult situations she took immediate and sometimes radical actions. Her government maneuvered Germany through the financial crisis without much damage being done in the country, her government single handedly saved the eurozone during the euro-crisis and her open-door-policy during the migration crisis was a stronghold for humanitarian and democratic values which were and still are under attack in many places.
What I say above is what you can read in articles all over the world since the announcement. Why is that odd, though? As we have seen, Merkel did a lot of good while holding office. For a long time she was even considered as a worthy Secretary-General of the UN because of her standing in the international community. Today, rumour has it that she may replace Jean-Claude Juncker next year as the next head of the EU commission. Nevertheless, a couple of years, even a couple of months ago, you would not have found the praises you here right now in any newspaper.
For many of her actions Merkel was harshly and publicly criticized already at the time; her policies towards Greece were often seen as too strict and interfering with a foreign state’s businesses. This created an image of her in fact ‘ruling’ Europe and made her not necessarily very popular amongst Germany’s neighbours.
For many, Merkel did not speak up enough against her allies, even if they broke the law. An example here is the NSA scandal with the US. German telephones were tapped by the NSA, including Merkel’s phone. There was an investigation, but neither did the government condemn the acts of the ally, nor were there any consequences.
Even domestically, Merkel could never convince much through natural charisma or passionate speeches. It is true that she set a positive example for women and west-east-integration, but fact is that women are still underrepresented in politics and high functions of businesses in Germany after having a female chancellor for more than one decade; or that the members of the national parliament to a higher proportion come from the former Western part of the country.
Her open-door-policy was probably what was criticized the most. From the outside perspective, for countries like Greece and Italy, it came too late. Southern European countries had been dealing with the issue of migration for years while countries in the north of the EU, like Germany, had been benefitting from the Dublin II agreement, which forced migrants and refugees to stay in the country of their arrival. From the inside it was harshly criticized by her close partners, such as the leader of her party’s sister-party (CSU) Horst Seehofer, for which it was too open, and her current coalition partners the Social Democrats, for which it was not open enough.
In a political career that lasted more than one decade it would be surprising if there had not been any criticism, any challenges, any problems.
Merkel took some radical moves while she was in office; the decision to open Germany’s borders is just the most-known example. However, from one moment to the other Merkel did a U-turn in 2011 in terms of Germany’s energy-policies and decided to take Germany off nuclear energy and try to replace it with renewable sources. Since then Germany has become one of the leading countries in an energy revolution towards clean and sustainable energy. In fact, with Merkel the international environmental movement loses an iconic figure. This movement is more recent than many might think. Until the 80s most people did not take the environmental changes seriously. The first important international conference on the topic was held in Kyoto, Japan, in 1992. Germany, at the time, was represented there by a young and ambitious women: Angela Merkel. From the Kyoto Protocol until the Paris Climate Accords, Merkel has been there and shaped the environmental movement.
And again, her decision to take Germany off nuclear energy was hardly seen as revolutionary by anyone at the time. For Germany’s Green Party the transition happened to slowly; for her conservative, liberal and pro-industry partners it came as too much of a burden for Germany’s big industries; for the Social Democrats it came as too much of a burden for the workers of the energy plants, as they all had to be retrained. She did it anyways and put aside the critics.
Maybe we tend to nostalgia today because we are afraid of who is going to replace her. In her party there are few people with enough authority to fill her shoes. The second biggest party in Germany, the Social Democrats, are losing one election after the other. The small parties, such as the Green Party, the Liberals or the Left are now all threatened by the newcomer, the AfD (Alternative for Germany), a far-right populist movement, which is anti-immigration, anti-Europe and pretty much anti-everything-else.
I don’t think that this is the case. There is another explanation why we prefer looking at the good over the bad, praise over critics, success over failure.
Besides everything, Angela Merkel shaped the politics of Germany and Europe for more than a decade and, admittedly, we are doing really well. Unemployment is low, economic growth is high. We have health care and education. We live in peaceful, stable and democratic governments and had the possibility to complain when our leaders failed us.
Looking at our fear of Merkel’s replacement; it is obvious that her successor will struggle to fill her shoes, but 13 years ago nobody believed that Merkel would leave such a big mark on the world. Maybe, the next chancellor, will leave an even bigger mark. Change is coming, that is for sure, but why don’t we for once assume that it is positive?