A clearly relaxed, smiling Angela Merkel sat down in the Berlin Chancellery to talk with DW news chief Max Hofmann. As her 16-year tenure draws to a close, the German chancellor mused on her two biggest challenges, her disappointments and her likely successor, Olaf Scholz.
"I'm not a machine, of course, but... a human being," Merkel said, when asked about being called a "compromise machine" at her last EU leadership conference in October.
"I always enter into such talks with an open mind," she said of her approach to policymaking at international conferences. She also discussed her approach when she was talking to a leader who does not share her set of values: "However, I also want to say that if someone has a fundamentally different perception of the world, then you should listen to them nonetheless; after all, if we didn't listen to each other anymore, we'd no longer find any solutions."
Germany should 'lead by example'
While the chancellor emphasized things she was proud of, such as maintaining strong ties with allies and beginning Germany's exit from coal, she didn't shy away from discussing things she wish had gone a bit differently.
"We're not doing too badly in Germany compared with other countries," she said of the country's environmental record. "But we're also one of the leading industrialized countries," she added, noting that with new technologies and scientific insights, it was Germany's responsibility to "lead by example."
However, Merkel added, the German political system means a leader has to build consensus before new legislation can be introduced. "We always need majorities for our decisions. This is an issue that I discuss with climate activists time and again. They say 'you have to do this now,' and I say 'but I still have to get a majority.' There have been many social expectations; there are many fears. I've always been committed to this, and yet I cannot say today that the outcome is satisfactory."
"We have to pay heed to the scientific estimates again, and that means sticking to global warming of 1.5 degrees [Celsius/2.7 degrees Fahrenheit]. [The COP26 climate conference in] Glasgow has already yielded a number of results. But this is still going too slowly from young people's understandable perspective," she said.
Afghanistan outcome 'very regrettable'
The chancellor also expressed her wish for a different outcome in Afghanistan.
"We are of course very sad about the fact that we simply did not manage to achieve what we wanted to do, namely find a self-sustaining political order in Afghanistan, one in which girls can go to school, women can fulfill their wishes, and with lasting peace," said Merkel, looking grave for a moment.
"Often, I've asked in discussions: how come so many young Afghan men want to come here, while at the same time our men and women in uniform are stationed over there? ... Nevertheless, we simply must accept that, despite our best intentions, we did not manage to create the order we would have liked to see there," Merkel said. "The blame for this lies not with Germany alone. The Afghans, for their part, did not get it done either. It is simply very regrettable."
'Two events I personally found most challenging'
Asked about her biggest struggles as leader, Merkel reflected: "The two events I personally found most challenging were, for one, the large number of refugees arriving here [in 2015], which I actually do not like to call a 'crisis' – because people are people. So, first, there was the pressure we faced from many people fleeing Syria and its neighboring countries. And now there is the COVID-19 pandemic. Maybe these were the crises where we clearly saw how people are being directly affected, where human lives hang in the balance. For me, those were the biggest challenges."
The chancellor said the European Union still needs to be able to find "a common system for addressing asylum and migration" and create "a self-regulating balance between the countries of origin and those where refugees first arrive," in order to better help refugees and fight the root causes of why people flee.
Asked to look back on her famous quote from 2015, when she said "Wir schaffen das," or, "We can do this," she admitted that "not everything went exactly as it should." But Merkel considered it a major success to see how many refugees Germany had taken in, many of whom now permanently live and work in the country.
"Yes, we did it. But by 'we', I mean a truly large number of people in Germany who helped get it done: many mayors, many volunteers," and the many who are still supporting their new friends, neighbors, and co-workers, the chancellor said.
'A reassuring signal in a turbulent world'
Smiling, Merkel conceded that having her likely successor Olaf Scholz by her side at the recent G20 meeting in Rome "wasn't quite that generous a step on my part" — as her finance minister, he was always going to attend.
However, she did bring Scholz to many closed-door discussions as a sign of continuity and harmony. Despite the fact that they come from different political parties — Scholz is from the center-left Social Democrats — Merkel appeared to have every confidence in the future chancellor.
"I thought it was an important signal for Olaf Scholz to be part of all bilateral discussions. That way, I could say, seated right here is the man you will probably be speaking with at the next meeting, in the role of German head of government," Merkel said. "I felt that was important."
She added that she thought it important to leave the impression that "the current chancellor and the likely future one have a good working relationship."
"This sends a reassuring signal in a rather turbulent world. I thought it was the right thing to do. "
Finally, the chancellor was asked about seeing someone else sitting in the chancellery after 16 years.
"You'll get used to it," Merkel said, smiling again.