Goodbye to Merkel: Has she left Europe a better place?
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Goodbye to Merkel: Has she left Europe a better place?

13 Jul 2021 - 13:48
Photo: Angela Merkel in the Bundestag in 2018. © Fraktion DIE LINKE im Bundestag - Flickr
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Chancellor Angela Merkel will leave active politics after the German federal elections on 26 September 2021. As Merkel’s departure after sixteen years will resonate across Europe, the Clingendael Spectator invited several international experts to offer their personal reflections on her legacy. In this episode of the series ‘Europe after Merkel’, Ulrike Guérot (Danube-University & European Democracy Lab) argues that Merkel has not left Germany – and the EU – a better and safer place.

Every four years, when the Federal Republic of Germany conducts national elections, all European eyes turn to Berlin. German elections trigger more Europe-wide (and global) attention than any other national election within the European Union.

This is easily explained: German national elections no longer only serve to take the country’s political temperature, but also to clarify to other Europeans what ‘Germany will do in Europe’. So, here we are again: all European eyes focus on Berlin, mesmerised by the German Chancellery, like rabbits charmed by a snake.

This piece analyses why everyone is watching Berlin with such intensity. Is this good for Europe? More importantly: has Angela Merkel left Germany – and the EU – a better and safer place? The short answer is no. This, of course, requires a clarification, which I will offer below.

I have no problem outing myself as someone who has never voted for Merkel in the four terms she ran the country. Perhaps this confession is important if the reader wants to understand my assessment of Merkel’s European policies. That being said, I have deep respect for the tremendous amount of work she has done, shouldering heavy responsibilities for such a long time without provoking scandal with respect to her own person.

Rostock, Germany 2014. Jürgen Telkmann - Flickr
Rostock, Germany 2014. © Jürgen Telkmann / Flickr

Before discussing Merkel’s political legacy, I would like to make a note on gender in politics. It is important to highlight that Merkel was the first female German chancellor. Referring to one of the marvellous books by French psychoanalyst Helene Deutsch, entitled The Psychology of Women, Merkel may epitomise a mother leading the country.

Mutti is Merkel’s nickname, interestingly, despite the fact that she has no children. In psychoanalytical terms, it is not trivial that a country starts to think about its leader in terms of parenthood (Mutti). One might argue that Merkel has made use of her erotic influence to run the country, perhaps in the same way as a traditional Italian Mamma may run a large family.

In her first term as chancellor, Merkel’s main focus was to stabilise Europe

Merkel governed four legislative periods between 2005 and 2021 (and might thereby set a record, outlasting Helmut Kohl’s mandate with a few days). First, there was a so-called Große Koalition (‘Grand Coalition’) with the Social Democrats (SPD) in 2005. This was followed by the ‘Black-Yellow’ coalition with the liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP) in 2009, and succeeded by two more Grand Coalitions in 2013 and 2018. Let us briefly scroll through these legislative periods to form a better judgement of Merkel’s political legacy, paying specific attention to her impact on the EU.

In her first term as chancellor, Merkel’s main focus was to stabilise Europe. Indeed, the European constitutional project had crashed due to a Dutch and French ‘no’ in two popular referenda between May and June of 2005. Merkel thus put it upon herself to pull Europe’s chestnuts out of the fire.

First, she negotiated the Lisbon Treaty of 2009, which broke the deadlock on EU institutional reform. Second, she overcame protests from countries like Poland by spearheading the legendary European Council decision defining the politically sensitive weighted voting system of the European Parliament. Third, she ensured the survival of the Lisbon Treaty in the Irish anti-EU referendum. Yet, at home, the Federal Constitutional Court adopted the famous Responsibility for Integration Act in September 2009, which presented the German Bundestag special responsibilities on key EU integration issues.

Guerot-German Chancellor Angela Merkel debated the future of Europe with MEPs and the President of the European Commission 2, 13nov2018-European Parliament
German Chancellor Angela Merkel debating the future of Europe in the European Parliament in 2018. © European Parliament

From the start, therefore, Chancellor Merkel (raised in the former German Democratic Republic) seemed not to be breastfed with the political mantra of the centrality of the so-called ‘Franco-German tandem’, and neither with the quasi-inevitable purpose of an ‘Ever Closer Union’. In her first term as chancellor, Merkel learned that the EU simply does not function – at least it certainly does not function well.

During her years in office, subsequently, Merkel’s attitude towards the EU was characterised by this critical approach: no grand European goals and no ambitions or visions. At best, Merkel aimed at stabilisation (at least this is what she probably had in mind herself).

A new national feeling was emerging, against which the European story paled by comparison

It was also during Merkel’s first term in office that Germany experienced its Sommermärchen (‘summer fairy-tale’). The country hosted the 2006 FIFA World Cup, and, for the first time, German flags were no longer considered tabu but were seen everywhere. A few years later, in 2009, German singer Lena won the European Song Contest, and new ‘German-pride-campaigns’ were aired on German TV regularly.

On top of that, the new social marketing campaign ‘Du bist Deutschland’ (‘You are Germany’) was launched to boost positive thinking and nationalist sentiment. In essence, the first few years of Merkel’s leadership saw the Federal Republic become Germany; a new national feeling was emerging, against which the European story paled by comparison.

Guerot - In 2006 Germany hosted the FIFA soccer World Cup. Photocapy - Flickr
In 2006 Germany hosted the FIFA soccer World Cup. © Photocapy / Flickr

In her second term, Merkel changed the way Germany conducted European policy. In a speech at the College of Europe in Bruges in 2009, she called for the established Gemeinschaftsmethode (‘community method’) to be changed into a new Unionsmethode (‘union method’). By doing so, Merkel essentially shifted the political weight from the European Commission and Parliament to the European Council.

The Commission, led by José Manuel Barroso (2004-2014), opposed such ambitious visions for Europe (in the style of his predecessor Jacques Delors), as they provided ample room for hard-nosed power-brokering and competition for national interests in the European Council. Indeed, this political set-up would allow for Germany to turn itself into the most important ‘national leader’ in Europe, ultimately taking the initiative for and setting the tempo and course of European integration.

The Franco-German tandem nearly broke

The period between 2009 and 2013 could be labelled a nascent ‘German hegemony in Europe’, particularly regarding monetary, fiscal and economic matters. Germany’s export industry turned to China, a move France was unable to thwart. Ever since he took office in 2012, French President François Hollande tried to take Germany on as the ‘Leader of Europe’s South’, but to no avail.

As a result, the Franco-German tandem nearly broke as southern EU states became increasingly irritated by austerity policies which gave rise to populism, not only in the European south. It would naturally require more space to examine the extent to which this rising populism across Europe has been a reaction to Germany’s budding European hegemony. Nevertheless, the relationship seems undeniable.

‘Germany can go it alone’ became Germany’s new political slogan

For example, Chancellor Merkel’s policies to protect German savings led to the EU Schuldenbremse (‘debt brake’), which had profound and negative consequences for the European south, spoiling the future of many youngsters there. This policy was widely criticised across Europe and within the EU, but was undisputed in Germany.

‘Germany can go it alone’ became Germany’s new political slogan, whereas in other EU states the slogan was coined that Merkel is always doing ‘too little too late’. Future historians may need to explain the role of the CDU/CSU’s1  junior coalition partner, the liberal FDP, during these years when Germany undermined not only European history and ambitions, but also the country’s long-term interests.

While the complexities of the financial crisis and its consequences for Europe were not always fully grasped, the continent’s atmosphere changed drastically during Merkel’s second term. The ‘Genuine Monetary and Economic Union’ project based on fiscal federalism (arguably the only valid response the EU should have given to the eurozone crisis), never materialised. This proved once more that nothing happens in Europe without, let alone against Germany.

Guerot - Berlin, 2016. Susanne Nilsson - Flickr
Berlin, 2016. © Susanne Nilsson / Flickr

Merkel’s third term in office was marked by the refugee crisis. Merkel’s (private) decision – looking into the eyes of a young Syrian girl – was to open its borders. This was a critical decision taken without consulting Germany’s European partners.

For her first – and only – emotional decision at the Chancellery, Merkel received both praise and harsh criticism (especially from populist forces in Eastern European countries, as well as within Germany itself). For some, Chancellor Merkel appeared to be the “only remaining leader of the Free World”. She (or better: Germany) became the “Paulus of Europe”, but only for those prepared to overlook the damage Merkel’s policy had done to Europe during the years of the banking crisis. Merkel’s many vocal critics flooded German streets, chanting “Merkel muss weg” (“Merkel has to go”).

The German-Polish relationship was seriously damaged

In her fourth (and final) term, Merkel took an agnostic approach to most key political challenges, including Brexit. She also decided to ignore at least four powerful speeches by French President Emmanuel Macron, who sketched out new forms of European sovereignty and emancipation. And Merkel never actively tried to challenge the affiliation of the (illiberal) Hungarian Fidès party within the European Peoples Party, the party family of the CDU/CSU.

Moreover, the German-Polish relationship was seriously damaged by Germany’s deals with Russia’s Gazprom in the Nordstream pipeline project. Germany’s role in the so-called ‘Normandy Format’ (which includes Germany, France, Russia and Ukraine, and works towards finding a way out of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict) continues to irk Polish leaders. They feel ignored on a key matter of national security, as Poland has a 600 km-long border with Ukraine.

Furthermore, under pressure of the coronavirus, Merkel finally allowed the EU to take loans as a juridical person in its own capacity, avoiding interest rate competition among member states. A long-overdue move that could – and should – have been made ten years ago.

Guerot - Angela Merkel in 2013. Tim Reckmann - Flickr
Angela Merkel in 2013. © Tim Reckmann / Flickr

The overview presented above offers an answer to the question of whether Merkel has, after sixteen years in office, left the EU a better and safer place. In my opinion, the answer is a clear no. The EU’s institutional architecture remains scattered, and the EU’s ambitions remain limited. Merkel’s Germany is largely responsible for this dreadful situation, though not the only one.

Germany’s ruling class seems to have forgotten how important Europe – and the EU – is for the country

One can well argue that Merkel succeeded in stabilising the EU, but at some point stabilising existing structures is just not enough. For example, the current debate about the so-called Vertragsverletzungsverfahren (‘treaty violations procedure’) pits the Court of Justice of the European Union against Germany’s Constitutional Court on who has the final say on European Central Bank policies (or, more concretely, who has the final say on European law). This is only the latest proof that Germany has lost its European compass during Merkel’s final years.

That Merkel is the one who talks with world leaders like Vladimir Putin, Joe Biden and Xi Jinping, is a different story altogether. That side of German foreign policy is thriving. Unfortunately, however, during the sixteen years of Merkel’s rule, Germany’s ruling class seems to have forgotten how important Europe – and the EU – is for the country. This despite recent polls indicating that the vast majority of Germans remains pro-European.

What will change after Merkel leaves active politics coming September? Since predicting the upcoming election result is hard enough, foreseeing the impact of Merkel’s exit is even harder. The only hope is that her successor will remember what former German chancellors all took for granted: there is no difference between German and European interests, and the only way to secure a ‘European way of living’ (and not to succumb to either American or Chinese geostrategic and/or geo-economic dependency), is to continue working towards more European integration, democracy and union. Merkel’s successor should acknowledge that this Europe has a price – as there is no such thing as a free lunch.

  • 1CDU/CSU is the political alliance of the Christian Democratic Union of Germany (CDU) and the Christian Social Union in Bavaria (CSU).


Ulrike Guérot
Professor of European Politics at the University of Bonn