Without question outgoing German chancellor Angela Merkel has been among the most important world leaders of the past 50 years. Her leadership of Germany and her influence over the European Union have had a deep impact on both the country and the continent. Indeed, the EU owes a debt of thanks to Merkel, without whom it could be in a much worse state than it is today.
Throughout her long rule as chancellor, Merkel has had to face a long list of crises, starting from her position with regard to the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, which she supported, accusing her rival, the former German chancellor Gerhard Schröder, of anti-Americanism.
This position did not garner her much popularity, especially as the Iraq War then went from one disaster to another and tainted then US president George Bush along with allies such as former British prime minister Tony Blair. But Merkel managed to survive the criticisms that tarnished the reputations of these politicians and forged for herself a different sort of legacy.
Germany, having Europe’s largest population and biggest economy, has been at the helm of the EU for decades and has been a useful instrument for a German leader regardless of his or her political affiliation, something that Merkel has managed to make apt use of.
She has maintained the unity of the EU through carefully crafted policies that have the interests of the German state and those of the EU at heart. Unlike some of the European leaders of the past two decades, Merkel is a staunch believer in the EU and its declared tenets of freedom, democracy, a free market and a liberal economy.
Merkel has also had no alternative but to like and fight for the EU, since Germany has been its greatest beneficiary since its foundation. According to a 2019 report by the German Bertelsmann Foundation, Germany has benefited most from the European single market to the tune of an increase in its economy of 86 billion euros.
This significant boost has been paralleled by an increased boost in the annual earnings of German citizens. These have become an average of 1,046 euros richer, compared to other EU citizens who have averaged only 840 euros.
Merkel has managed to resolve many of the political crises that have struck the EU over the past two decades, very often resulting from the fallout from EU policies. One of these crises was the Greek debt crisis of the last decade, which for a time threatened the integrity of the EU as well as its currency the euro. Thanks to hard negotiations, the EU reached a settlement with Greece to pay its outstanding debts through a series of bailouts and other austerity measures.
Though the settlement did not add to Merkel’s popularity in Europe, whether about keeping Greece in the EU or allowing it to exit, her pragmatism was commended and helped avoid a fracture that could have led to its disintegration if countries such as Spain and Italy had followed suit given their dire economic conditions.
Furthermore, through careful political manoeuvres she sustained the unity of the European bloc after the Brexit referendum led the UK to withdraw from the EU in 2016. This major blow to the European bloc and what followed in terms of other calls for withdrawal could have spelled the end of the EU.
Merkel and other European leaders such as French President Emmanuel Macron played a large part in maintaining order and in assuring that the future of the shaken EU was still bright. Moreover, they played a part in making sure that the Brexit was quite painful financially for the UK such that other members of the EU will not be encouraged to repeat it.
Merkel’s share of crises has extended to her immigration laws, which have allowed many immigrants into Germany without vetting their identity, leading to a series of problems. A case in point was the Syrian refugee crisis in 2015 that followed the rapid gains made by the Islamic State (IS) group in Syria in a country already battered by civil war.
Merkel granted nearly one million Syrians refugee status in Germany, and while her humanitarian act was widely commended, there were security issues arising from the lack of proper investigation about the identity of the immigrants. As a result, her actions resulted in a security breach in the country followed by ongoing terrorist threats.
The departure of Merkel from office will certainly leave a void in German politics after her 16 years of rule. Despite all the controversies surrounding her as chancellor, she still managed to shift events in her favour while maintaining a sense of unity and coordination with other parties, whether from the left or the right. It will be a hard task for any new German chancellor to maintain the same level of coordination between opposing sides.
Merkel’s Christian Democrat Party (CDU) lost a lot of seats in the latest elections in Germany and suffered its worst losses in history, rendering it hard for Merkel’s policies to continue after her departure. The CDU is also suffering from internal power struggles that are likely to handicap it from restoring its dominance of the German scene for some years to come. This could be one of Merkel’s failures in failing to prepare a viable successor.
Germany will continue to be an economic and political power to be reckoned with regardless of the identity of Merkel’s successor and despite the economic hardships imposed on Europe as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. However, it is not clear that the next chancellor will be able to maintain the same successes that Merkel managed in her 16 years of rule.
Candidates such as Olaf Scholz of the Social Democrats (SPD), Armin Laschet of the CDU/CSU and Annalena Baerbock of the Greens will have an uphill battle in matching Merkel’s legacy despite the controversies that have surrounded it.
*The writer is a political analyst and author of Egypt’s Arab Spring and the Winding Road to Democracy.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 7 October, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly