Features | Nora White and Constance Quinlan
“Wir schaffen das”. It is difficult to believe that Merkel’s assured, perhaps even smug, mantra at the onset of the 2015 refugee crisis, ‘We will manage this’, would a few years later evoke bitter irony in German listeners at its mention, in a country that is becoming increasingly divided by their chancellor’s policies and disillusioned by the hegemonic political players in the Bundestag. In September 2017, Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union suffered its worst electoral defeat in seventy years and struggled to form a coalition. Just over a year later, on 29th October 2018, Merkel announced that she would not be running for the leadership of the Christian Democratic Union in December, and would not be seeking re-election as Chancellor in 2021. But despite the disenchantment and deep divisions that she leaves behind her, the news gives few people any cause for celebration. From the inception of her political career in the communist German Democratic Republic to her thirteen-year long chancellorship, Merkel truly has achieved a lot, both for Germany and for the European Union. In her wake she leaves a vacuum, both at home and in Brussels, that could well be filled with politics of reaction rather than of reality.
Throughout her thirteen-year career as chancellor, Merkel has overseen such crises as the global financial crisis of 2007-2008, the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, the refugee crisis, Brexit and the international rise of populism. Her decisions have caused much controversy and have left both left-wing and right-wing commentators simultaneously bewildered and stimulated. Regarded as a feminist icon by some, she has been extremely hesitant, even unwilling, to
categorise herself as such. A female friend of ours recently declared “sometimes I think my sexuality is just ‘Angela Merkel’”, yet Merkel voted against the same sex marriage bill brought in front of the Bundestag.
Despite this, she did go on to facilitate the bill’s implementation, something she would continue to do with social policy throughout her career at odds not only with her party’s centre-right Christian ideology, but her own personal views. This resulted in a comparison between her social policy and that of left-wing parties like the centre-left Social Democratic Party (SPD). Some - most vocally, certain members of the SPD - have questioned the wider effect of the inclusion of social liberalism in the CDU agenda, arguing that her use of positions outside of the CDU traditional ideology are in part responsible for an overall loss in support for the centre left. Some even contend that she is herself responsible for the gaping hole she will leave behind her in politics - a void that appears to be a universally acknowledged reality by EU politicians and citizens alike.
In her wake she leaves a vacuum, both at home and in Brussels, that could well be filled with politics of reaction rather than of reality
It seems that fundamentally, her loyalty lies solely in the institutions she is part of above all, the European Union. Merkel’s reputation within the EU has spanned from that of a ‘cruel principal’ punishing disobedient Eurozone states who lose the run of themselves, to a kind Christian figure - the ‘Mother of Europe’. No matter how her leadership is regarded, one must recognise and applaud her devotion to the European project. Rather than attempting to understand her decisions emotively as demonstrations of her cruelty or humanity, close examination of her European policy reveals that the social and economic stability of the union is their only unifying objective. Her cruelty towards Eurozone countries crippled with debt was driven by the fact that German taxpayers money was bailing out other countries, and thus they wanted to be sure that it would not need to be repeated. Her hesitancy to intervene in the Russian-Crimean conflict was symptomatic of her unwillingness to create open conflict for her country and for the European Union.
And while those countries who suffered most during the financial crisis were struggling to cope with the influx of asylum seekers, Merkel knew that there was no other practical option for Germany but to take responsibility, as the strongest economy within the EU bloc. She ignored the Dublin Regulation, and accepted asylum seekers who had presented to other EU member states before reaching Germany. Her magnanimous decisions regarding immigration may be seen as idealistic, but in reality, any other decision would have undermined the Schengen Agreement. Merkel didn’t ‘open’ the border (the German border, under Schengen Zone regulations, was never closed) and to act otherwise would likely have led to the dissolution of the European Union as we know it.
Finding a successor with such tenacity in the face of seemingly insurmountable political pressure will be no small task for the CDU, nor for German electorate (whether they realise it or not). After eighteen years of her being in power, however, it is a challenge Germany seems more than ready to take on. A dissatisfaction with the dominant political parties combined with the sense that the old CDU vanguard is being pulled from any relevant political sphere seems to be heralding the new era of German politics, foretold by the fractured results of the 2017 Bundestag election. Merkel, meanwhile, does not plan to leave her people unprotected in her passing, and apparently hopes to entrust their care to her protégée, general secretary of the CDU Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, (or ‘AKK’, as she is known) who has already declared her intent to run for the chancellorship. Whether someone who is suspiciously regarded as ‘Mini-Merkel’ and has stated her intent to build on Merkel’s legacy will solve the issues plaguing German politics remains to be seen.
It is much too early to judge what sort of leadership is necessary to quell, not only an electorate with a disturbingly growing preference for populist parties like the Alternativ für Deutschland (AfD), but also to repair an unprecedented fracturing of the old CDU/CSU alliance. Tensions between the CDU and its Bavarian sister party grew throughout Merkel’s leadership, most controversially with regard to her refugee politics. Should CSU chairman and longtime conservative rival of Merkel, Horst Seehofer, resign as rumoured, then it will be seen if the siblings will reconcile, or grow further apart. All that we can say for certain is that although Merkel has laid her political career to rest, the ghosts of her chancellorship will live on for a long, long time.
Originally published 22.11.18 in Vol. 2 No. 1.