Written by Ángela Cano & Horacio Cabrera
On November 22nd 2005, following the result of the vote among German parliamentarians, Angela Merkel was greeted in the German parliament by its President, Norbert Lammert, with the following welcome: “Dear Mrs. Merkel, you are the first ever elected female head of government in Germany. That is a strong signal for many women and certainly for some men too” (Dempsey, 2005).
Angela Merkel is a doctor of quantum chemistry trained in physics and educated in East Germany. According to Matthias Dilling, an expert on German politics at Oxford University, she had been gaining prominence in her party, the Christian Democratic Union of Germany (CDU), thanks to two pillars;
1· The unconditional support of her mentor and party leader Helmut Kohl.
2· The fact that she came from the GDR and was a woman, which benefited her thanks to the internal quota system (Esparza, 2017).
From 1991 to 1998 (during Kohl’s two terms in office) she served as Minister for Women and Youth and Minister for the Environment and Nuclear Safety. Years later in an interview, Merkel herself admitted, “When I was appointed Environment Minister I was so harshly minimised that I swore to myself that I would never tolerate it again” (Dempsey, 2005). These statements hint at what the chancellor’s attitude would be during her years in office.
The CDU’s main political and economic proposals for the 2005 elections were as follows. Firstly, to increase the pace and scope of economic deregulation in Germany and secondly, to make a series of cuts in both public spending and income tax.
Thus, according to the polls, the CDU faced the elections with a 21% lead over the Social Democratic Party (SPD), which augured a clear victory for Merkel’s party. So much so that British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, prioritised a meeting with candidate Angela Merkel over the current Chancellor Schröder. However, that lead faded to just 1 per cent, forcing the CDU, after a long round of negotiations, to govern in alliance with the second most voted party, the SPD. They resolved the organisation of the Government by splitting the ministries equally, with eight departments for each bloc.
Since reunification, Germany has had three chancellors who have always been the result of a coalition. Angela Merkel’s case has been no different, such that her four terms as head of the German government have all arisen through pacts with other political forces. This pact-based policy has been the essence of the German chancellor’s form of doing politics, whose way of acting led the German people to coin the verb zu merkeln to define an attitude of consensus and not imposition, in which decision-making could be delayed until the right agreement was found. (Mota, 2021)
Throughout her years in office, Merkel has established herself as a great manager capable of tackling major challenges through harmony and dialogue. One of the best examples of this was the 2017 approval of the equal marriage law (“Ehe für alle” marriage for all in German), which Merkel personally opposed, but was passed owing to the fact that the Chancellor allowed her party’s deputies to break voting discipline.
Angela Merkel emerges as a leader within the European Union whose leadership style contrasts with that of other world leaders such as Vladimir Putin or Donald Trump. Perhaps, and always thanks to this conciliatory capacity for politics, Merkel has been able to handle the various stumbling blocks that the European project has encountered, acting as the de facto leader of the European Union without her public image being as damaged as that of other politicians. From this position of power within the EU, in almost 16 years in office, Merkel has had to deal with a succession of crises, from the collapse of the global financial system in 2008 to the current health crisis and economic recession resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, through a succession of migration crises that mainly affected the south and east of the EU, especially since 2015.
In between, as an example of one of the great political challenges she has faced, Merkel has also played a key role in confronting the resurgence of the extreme right in countries such as France, Italy, Greece, Poland, Hungary, among others. This reappearance of the far right has posed (and continues to pose) a threat to the cohesion of the EU’s common project. Its greatest exponent has been the recent divorce with the UK.
During Merkel’s term the EU has seen four main challenges:
1) Firstly protection of the climate, here Merkel has always announced herself as a supporter of climate neutrality (Carbajosa, 2021) and she argued that this was necessary for a strong Europe. It was clear that this position required extensive efforts and enormous economic resources, but she persuaded the population by explaining that these efforts would lead to an important multiplier effect, where more jobs arised and where technological development flourished (Carbajosa, 2021). A clear example of this is after the nuclear catastrophe of Hiroshima’s nuclear plant, when Germany promised to eliminate its 17 nuclear plants by 2022.
2) Another important challenge was the migration crisis, where Merkel was disgusted by racism, defended the assistance of refugees and insisted on countries such as Italy and Greece to open their reception and registration centers in order to distinguish refugees from economic immigrants. These centers would serve to decide who should be given asylum and who does not have the necessary requisites and must therefore return to their nation. Other countries were forced to create conjunct legislation regarding asylum. She created these policies and referred to them as “Wir schaffen das”, a concept which has been attacked by various politicians for bringing a real and lasting problem for many countries, especially regarding lack of resources and unemployment (due to immigrants entering the labour force) (Oltermann, 2020).
3) The third challenge was the digitalisation of the EU, where a digital agenda and a commercial relaunch towards China and USA was planned. Merkel argued there are necessary investments which must be made towards innovation and digital boosting; she claimed that Europe’s digital sovereignty was important to become totally autonomous and this way more independent (Hobbs, 2020).
4) Finally, cohesion between EU countries has recently been the most complex challenge. Merkel boosted common values (such as human liberty, dignity, equality against the state and respect for human rights) and sincere dialogue (Buras & Puglierin, 2021). It was argued that states must be proactive and must ensure better coordination between all states to ensure an independent Europe. A strong and autonomous Europe also means that the nations could act strategically, thereby achieving better European sovereignty. Europe can only be strong if it is united and if it takes into account diverse opinions, making this diversity a strength of the EU.
This last point about Europe’s cohesion is the main question: what will happen with Europe without Merkel? She has left behind a legacy to the EU, starting with the fact that her non-abrasive character, her sober and predictable approach, and her absence of unnecessary demonstrations of power, have led to a strong public character whose reputation is untarnished by politically sensitive topics (Veras, 2021). This leads us to think that perhaps other politicians should imitate this attitude. The farewell of Merkel means that the EU will lose its cautious and pragmatic image that we have seen in recent years.
So, will the EU remain united? This will depend on a number of things, but importantly it will depend on who takes on Merkel’s role as de facto leader of Europe. At the moment there are four possible and strong candidates. The social democrat Olaf Scholz, the heir of Germany and current politician. Others opt for Macron, who has been the second protagonist after Merkel in the European scene for the last few years (Gil, 2021). Another candidate is Mario Draghi from Italy, who was part of the European Central Bank during the last global financial crisis. And finally Mark Rutte, from Holland, who many suggest will become Macron’s ally in order to control and coordinate European matters (Gil, 2021). Only time will tell what will happen next.
Dempsey, J. (2005, November 23). Merkel takes over as German leader. New York Times.
Esparza, P. (2017, September 25). ¿Cómo ha logrado Angela Merkel dominar la política de Alemania durante 16 años? BBC World.
Mota, C. V. (2021, January 18). El perdurable legado de Angela Merkel, la poderosa líder de Europa que prepara su salida tras casi 16 años gobernando Alemania. BBC World.
Carbajosa, A. (2021, September 26). El Adiós de Merkel deja a Alemania y a la UE ante un desafío inédito. El País.
Hobbs, C. (2020, July 30). Europe’s digital sovereignty: From rulemaker to superpower in the age of US-China rivalry. European Council on Foreign Relations. Ecfr.eu.
Gil, A. (2021, September 21). ¿Quién Liderará la UE Cuando Se Vaya Merkel? El diario.es.
Oltermann, P. (2020, August 30). How Angela Merkel’s great migrant gamble paid off. The Guardian.Puglierin, J., & Buras, P. (2021, September 14). Beyond merkelism: What Europeans expect of post-election Germany. European Council on Foreign Relations. Ecfr.eu.