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Angela Merkel and her view of the world

Christoph Hasselbach | Michaela Küfner | Maximiliane Koschyk | Kay-Alexander Scholz
December 31, 2019

The chancellor's mandate will soon be drawing to a close. What has she accomplished in her time in office? What does she still want to achieve as head of government? And what is her legacy? A DW assessment.

Angela Merkel
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/J. Woitas

There have been frequent predictions of her premature resignation, especially whenever the coalition government of her Christian Democrats (CDU) and the Social Democrats (SPD) hits another rough patch. Yet Angela Merkel remains German chancellor, after more than 14 years. And she intends to stay on until the end of the legislative period. She has the support of the public. Although many are critical of the work of country's governing "grand coalition," a large majority do want Merkel to stay in the chancellor's office until 2021.

One of the phrases Merkel used to promote herself in the 2013 election campaign was "You know me." It meant: You can rely on me. You know where you stand with me. This sentence also illustrated the extent to which Merkel herself was at the center of the political debate, and entire election campaigns tailored to her person.

Dramatic changes

2017 German election posters
In eastern German states, the far-right AfD has nipped at the heels or overtaken Merkel's Christian DemocratsImage: imago/Müller-Stauffenberg

Germany and the world have moved on a long way from where they were in 2005, when Merkel became chancellor for the first time. Politics in Germany are more polarized than they have been for decades: The right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) is represented in all the federal state parliaments. In several eastern regions, it is the second strongest force; it is the strongest opposition party in the federal parliament, the Bundestag. The traditional major parties — Merkel's CDU and, to an even greater extent, the SPD — have lost a huge amount of support.

The international situation is also much more fragile. "The days when we could rely totally on others are rather a thing of the past," Merkel said in 2017, when the new US president, Donald Trump, questioned the point of NATO. One year earlier, a narrow majority of the UK had voted in favor of Britain leaving the EU.

Merkel's biographer, Ralph Bollmann, believes that since the Brexit vote and Trump, the chancellor considers there to be "a very serious crisis in Western democracies." According to Bollmann, Merkel's goal for her last few months in office is "not to leave Germany and, insofar as it is in her power, Europe and the world, in chaos."

Merkel was never a great visionary. The difference between her and the French President Emmanuel Macron, for example, is striking. Macron recently made a series of proposals for EU reform that left Merkel more or less unmoved, after which he ignited debate with his "brain dead" remark about NATO.

Behind closed doors, many in Merkel's own party wish she would allow herself to be infected a least a little by Macron's desire to lead, and would, instead of simply "working through" crises, put more of an emphasis on German ideas of her own.

Hated figure, or savior of the Western world?

Yet Angela Merkel has changed a great many things, not least simply by being a woman who has forged a career in what was once a patriarchal party. She still declines to describe herself as a feminist: "I don't want to adorn myself with false laurels," she explained, in an interview with German weekly Die Zeit.

Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, Angela Merkel, Ursula von der Leyen and Julia Kloeckner (l. to r.),
Merkel has supported a few close female allies, but parliamentary gender parity has actually worsened in recent yearsImage: picture-alliance/M. Schreiber

So when it comes to promoting the advancement of women in politics and society, her record its mixed. On one hand, the proportion of women in the Bundestag has actually dropped significantly over the 14 years of her chancellorship — from 42 to 31 percent. So when Merkel says things like, "The quotas were important, but the goal must be parity," she's withholding the fact that she has actually blocked demands from her own party for a quota of women in parliament. On the other hand, she has specifically promoted other individual women, including her designated successor, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, the current president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, and the minister of agriculture, Julia Klöckner.

"You know me" also implied consistency. But Merkel is in fact flexible in her decision-making, which her biographer, Bollmann, says is "pragmatic, based on actual political circumstances." As a physicist, she believed in nuclear power — but she decided to phase out nuclear power after the serious nuclear accident in Fukushima, Japan. She authorized extending marriage to homosexual couples even though she herself had a "bad gut feeling" about it. And it was under her government that general conscription was abandoned.

Boris Johnson and Donald Trump
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and US President Donald Trump stand for a very different brand of politics than Merkel'sImage: Getty Images/AFP/S. Loeb

However, nothing was or remains as controversial as Merkel's 2015 decision to open Germany's borders to hundreds of thousands of refugees. Parliament wasn't given a say. After that, the AfD really went for Merkel: When refugees committed acts of violence, the AfD described the victims as "Merkel's dead." For some, she became a hate figure, while others saw her as the savior of the Western world. At the end of 2015, TIME magazine named her person of the year, while in her own country right-wing demonstrators were carrying banners reading "Merkel must go."

Trust in the political system is dwindling

Despite this polarization, Merkel is still one of Germany's most popular politicians; often, she's the only one to top the polls. Kramp-Karrenbauer, by contrast, trails far behind. But Merkel is well aware of how controversial her policies have been. She let it be known before the recent Bundestag elections that it would have been a struggle for her to put herself forward again as chancellor candidate. These days, she stays in the background during election campaigns and is less and less involved in day-to-day politics; the majority of her engagements are abroad.

Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron
French President Macron has had a warm relationship with Merkel, but a showier diplomatic styleImage: picture-alliance/abaca/C. Liewig

Green party parliamentarian Jürgen Trittin believes Merkel is becoming increasingly European in her focus, and is "concentrating everything on Germany's presidency of the EU Council" in the second half of 2020. Foreign policy experts from her own ranks like Roderich Kiesewetter feel there's a lack of a clear line on foreign policy. "She has no national strategy that transparently shows Germany's interests and strengths, as well as its weaknesses,” says Kiesewetter. He believes Germany needs to demonstrate "how to stabilize its own partners in the South, in Ukraine, and also in the Middle East."

However, statistics from a survey by the Allensbach polling institute in the autumn showed that confidence in politics is also dwindling at home. Only 57% of those surveyed still regarded stability as one of Germany's strengths, compared with 81% in 2015. And only 51% saw the existing political system as one of the country's strengths, compared with 62% four years ago.

A European focus

What will Merkel's legacy be? Bollmann believes the chancellor would like to see herself "as the woman who has led Germany through many crises — the financial crisis, the euro crisis, the Ukraine crisis, the refugee crisis — relatively safely, and has to a certain extent preserved the stability of the system, while also making the country and the party more liberal, more open. But this has come at the price of us now having a right-wing populist party in the Bundestag that embodies the opposition to this form of changing values."

Merkel doesn't have much time left in which to shape policies, and by slowly withdrawing from daily politics she's making clear that, at least as far as domestic policies are concerned, there's not much more she wants to shape. Instead, the chancellor is increasingly leaving this field to Kramp-Karrenbauer.

Read more: What's next for Merkel's government?

However, it seems increasingly doubtful that Kramp-Karrenbauer will in fact succeed Merkel. Some in the CDU itself are even turning openly against "AKK." But one thing is clear: as Germany's second-longest-serving chancellor, whoever does follow in Merkel's footsteps to the chancellery will have very big shoes to fill.