Angela Merkel’s legacy may not be all she hoped for – but her successor won’t have it much easier
Friday marked Angela Merkel’s 4,750th day as German chancellor – that’s 13 years. It’s been a remarkable run for Germany’s first female chancellor, one who led Europe’s greatest power through the global financial crisis, the European sovereign debt crisis and the refugee crisis. For nearly half that time, German pundits have been predicting “Merkeldämmerung,” Merkel’s twilight. Finally, it has arrived. In late October, amid historically low approval ratings for her Christian Democratic Union party, Merkel announced that she would not seek the position of party chief again. The CDU will vote on her replacement in just over two weeks. The winner of that race will be the favourite to replace Merkel as chancellor in 2021 – if her government makes it that far.
The Chancellor’s Legacy
Merkel will hardly be remembered for leading Germany out of its difficult post-reunification years and into a time of great prosperity, though she did. (In August 2018 unemployment in the country was at 5.2%, the lowest level since reunification, and down from 11.5% in November 2005.) Instead, she will forever be known as the chancellor who offered up German savings to defend the eurozone. That series of decisions culminated in the move to bail out Greece in 2015 rather than allow a Grexit and in the process gave rise to the far-right Alternative for Germany party, which has sapped the CDU’s support.
Merkel also will be remembered for refusing to close Germany’s borders during the 2015 Syrian refugee crisis (a call that was short-lived and mischaracterised as “opening the borders” – Europe’s internal borders were already open), allowing more than 1 million people to enter the country in a span of two years.
Before those critical decisions, the CDU had for a couple of years consistently polled above 40%; today its approval is in the mid-to-high 20s, an all-time low.
It would have been extraordinarily difficult for any German leader to have acted otherwise. Saving Greece – at what will probably prove to be a prohibitive cost for the Greeks – may have prevented the collapse of the eurozone. And without the eurozone’s ease of trade, the German economy would suffocate.
When Germany opted to temporarily waive EU asylum procedures for Syrian applicants, it opened a relief valve for the overwhelmed Hungarian government. Once asylumseekers in Hungary began marching toward the Austrian border, there was no realistic way to stop them short of border closures, which would have rippled throughout the Schengen zone and disrupted vital trade. These decisions took courage, but they were the least-bad options available. They also proved to be political suicide.
The Successor’s Challenge
Difficult decisions abound for the next chancellor. Germany’s export-oriented growth model has taken the economy to new heights, but it is now dangerously unbalanced at a time when global consumption is slowing. If the German economy can’t adapt to the 21st century, it will