Thirteen years since her first chancellorship began, Angela Merkel has established herself as one of the greatest Chancellors in post-war Germany. Commanding the same respect endowed to the CDU party’s predecessors, notably Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, the symbolic post-Nazi Germany statesman, and Helmut Kohl, overseer of German reunification, Merkel has orchestrated Germany’s hegemonic rise while bearing the weathering European tumult.
A leviathan in her own right, and outliving three British premiers in her three long chancellorships, she has rightly been on the receiving end of praise and criticism for both German and European affairs. Although typified for her pragmatic centrism, Merkel is often the first European leader to stray from normative practice, as her suspension of arms sales to Saudi Arabia last month illustrates.
Merkel’s reign can be broken down into three stages, indicative of her popularity and result-bearing wield of power. We are currently witnessing the tragic fall of a politician who has marred Germany’s cohesive political landscape, dragging down those of its European neighbours in the process.
Merkel – The Mädchen
Beginning in her formative-cum-debut era, as the title suggests, Mädchen – girl – was the affectionate term given to then shadower Merkel by Chancellor Helmut Kohl, indicative of her protégé status in her pursuit for power. Kohl groomed Merkel as his successor by appointing her Minister for Women and Youth, and notably Minister for the Environment and Nuclear Safety. Merkel was destined to hold high office, attaining the latter position in 1994 – eleven years before she entered the Chancellery.
Following her 2005 election, Forbes Magazine promptly labelled her the World’s Most Powerful Woman (https://www.forbes.com/2006/08/31/most-powerful-women_cz_em_06women_0831intro.html#62e9277e68c5) based on her vocal presence on the world stage and her attractive business reforms. Indeed, the fledgling leader took flight on her home turf, promptly reducing the unemployment rate from its 2000s high of 11.7% in 2005 to 8.1% in 2009, following which she has overseen a year-on-year decline to 5.3% in 2018. Having helped workers dodge the disastrous financial crisis in 2008, her principal tenet of austerity would set the tone for other European governments in the post-crash decade.
Merkel – The Hegemon
Merkel had secured the home front by the end of her first term. Re-elected in 2009, Merkel ruled somewhat unilaterally at times, with scant consideration for the dramatic consequences.
Following the Fukushima nuclear plant in 2011, Merkel out and out refused the further building of nuclear power plants, overseeing their permanent removal by 2022 to mark a
transition to green energy. Utopian and naive, this effectively prevented an increase in alternative energy resource consumption. As of 2016, 30% of German energy consumption came from renewable energy resources, while 13% was sourced from nuclear plants. A consequent thirst for Russian gas has engendered German energy security, and there will have to be a rapid turnaround in making up for that 13% shortfall by 2022.
Elsewhere in Europe, Greece had dropped into Germany’s fiscal cross-hairs. The sick man of Europe was haemorrhaging debt following the 2008 financial crisis. ‘Living beyond its means’, Greece fell victim to Merkel’s austerity dogma. In a surreal turn of events, the German parliament voted on Greece’s effective survival when the Bundestag agreed to loan Greece $86 bn in bailout packages in 2015. Germany’s economic clout reverberated across Europe as Merkel established her country’s political and economic primacy.
This power was applied in the wake of the Maidan Revolution, the Russian annexation of Crimea, and the occupation of the Donbas region, 2013-2014. The Minsk Accords must have been Merkel’s proudest foreign policy achievements, nominally hemming in the Russian-Ukrainian conflict under the eyes of the OSCE and a host of international observers. Merkel’s humanitarianism did not stop there; she summoned Syria’s civilian victims to traverse the European continent to seek refuge in her land from 2015 onwards. However, Merkel’s good nature was to be exploited and instrumentalised in the following years, sounding the death knell for an ambitious and outward-looking Germany.
Merkel – The Fallen
In last year’s federal elections and subsequent state elections, Merkel has seen her CDU party and CSU sister party lose substantial vote shares. In last month’s Bavarian election, the CSU lost its plurality – falling below 40% for the first time since 1954. This is just the tip of the iceberg for the Germany which Merkel has left in her wake.
The polarising effect Merkel has had on Germany is due to her overall monotonous continuity within German politics, causing the electorate to seek more enthusing and diverse political parties. It is also an effect of her divisive refugee policy. Whether classed as generosity or pragmatism in the face of Germany’s working population’s decline, Germany’s over one million refugees have fuelled the fire of the far-right AfD (Alternative for Germany). The AfD, a party whose leader has described the Holocaust as ‘bird shit’ in an otherwise ‘1000 years of successful German history’, is now the third biggest party in Germany and the official opposition party to Merkel’s government.
This illiberal trend was triggered by Merkel herself. Her ruthlessly effective management of Germany now gives no alternative in the ideological centre; Germans are polarised in their opposition to Merkel. In a recent survey, it was revealed that nearly one third of Germans are populist.
As a legacy, this has hard-hitting ramifications for the political culture of Central and Eastern Europe. Succumbing to nationalist populism, Germany’s key role within the European Union has faltered. France’s Macron is paralysed in his pro-EU agenda while Merkel is wracked by
Brexit, internal strife and politically hostile neighbours beyond the Oder. Merkel’s Germany has taken one step forward and two strides back.
[Unedited submission to The Gryphon Views]
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