The Merkel legacy: Avoiding conflict for 16 years
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The Merkel legacy: Avoiding conflict for 16 years

16 Jun 2021 - 09:32
Photo: Angela Merkel during a visit to David Cameron in May 2015. © Number 10, 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 personal reflections on her legacy. In this episode of the series ‘Europe after Merkel’, Dalibor Rohac of the American Enterprise Institute discusses Merkel’s strong dislike of conflictual politics.

For a leader who has dominated German and European politics for close to a generation, the departing German chancellor Angela Merkel appears to have a strong dislike of perhaps the most ubiquitous feature of politics: conflict.

Democratic societies encompass a multitude of interests and values, which inevitably clash with each other. The job of politicians is not simply to manage pluralism by seeking an elusive sense of consensus and agreement. It is also their job – to use Donald Trump’s favourite turn of phrase – to win, and to deliver the goods to their specific political constituencies at the expense of others, or to prioritise certain political values over others.

‘Politics-as-conflict’ cuts against the grain of German political culture, which is predicated on an effort to prevent the return of the ideological and partisan polarisation, that had paved the way towards the destruction of its interwar democratic institutions. Arguably, Merkel took this aversion to conflict to new heights.

At home, instead of building on the Gerhard Schröder-era economic reforms1 , Merkel’s years were one of stasis, and of betting big on the indefinite continuation of the country’s manufacturing- and export-driven growth model. Thus far, the bet has worked, though it has also generated a sizeable current account surplus which irks Germany’s friends and foes alike.

The Merkelian politics of consensus has largely emptied the politics of Germany’s main parties of substance

Yet, without growing productivity, the perpetuation of the status quo is not a guarantee of limitless economic prosperity, especially in an environment in which Germany’s international value chains might be under threat from the looming deglobalisation. Alas, the advice of economists, including those at the International Monetary Fund, to “use more of [Germany’s] fiscal space to close domestic investment gaps, and open up its services markets to boost competition”2 , was not heeded – arguably for the fear of upsetting domestic interest groups.

The Merkelian politics of consensus has largely emptied the politics of Germany’s main parties of substance. In the 2017 election, for example, the slogan of Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU), ‘For a Germany in which we live well and happily’3 , competed against the slogan of Germany’s Social Democratic Party (SPD), ‘The future needs new ideas’.4  These slogans reflect an ideological and intellectual fatigue, a lack of imagination, and a fear of upsetting anyone, providing an opening to new challengers both on the far right and in the liberal centre.

Rohac - HM King Philippe (King of the Belgians), Donald Trump (President, United States), NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, Angela Merkel (Federal Chancellor, Germany) and Charles Michel (Prime Minister, Belgium) during a NSATO summit in 2017. NATO
From left to right Belgian King Philippe, Donald Trump, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, Angela Merkel and Charles Michel as Belgian Prime Minister during a NATO summit in 2017. © NATO 

Internationally, Merkel’s avoidance of conflictual politics led to paradoxical situations. Since conflict is ubiquitous, particularly in a community as diverse as the European Union, her efforts to avoid it have produced unintended consequences. This makes her both “too technocratic and too political,” as the political scientist Štefan Auer writes in his study of Merkel’s response to the eurozone crisis, the refugee crisis, and Vladimir Putin’s war against Ukraine.5

At moments of emergency, the rules were suddenly suspended

The debate over Greece’s insolvency, for example, has been largely framed in technical and accounting terms, as a matter of satisfying the rules guiding economic and fiscal policy in the eurozone. At moments of emergency, however, the rules were suddenly suspended to provide ad hoc financial aid to Greece.6  Outside of democratic scrutiny, the European Central Bank, tasked (by its German founders) with a limited mandate to maintain price stability, decided to do “whatever it takes”7   to keep the eurozone together – even at the risk of running afoul of German constitutional principles.8

The point here is not to relitigate the wisdom of the policy choices made by Merkel and other European leaders. It is merely to point out the tension that exists between the default inclination to resort to rules and technocracy, and the last-minute decisions taken at emergency summits – oftentimes bypassing the framework of European treaties. For instance, both the Fiscal Compact9  and European Stability Mechanism10  are governed by intergovernmental treaties, and the latter relies on a very creative interpretation of the ‘no bailout’ clause.

Similarly, the governments of the Visegrád group (consisting of the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia) have been scolded by the European Court of Justice for defying the EU’s adopted policies concerning relocations of asylum seekers.11  However, Merkel’s own approach to the challenge of the European migration crisis in 2015 could hardly be described as mere rule-following.

Rohac - Demonstration in Hamburg, 2015. Konrad Lembcke - Flickr
Demonstration in Hamburg, 2015. © Konrad Lembcke / Flickr

Initially, the German chancellor famously insisted that asylum in Germany cannot be a free-for-all,12  even though the number of rejected Syrian applicants for asylum had been vanishingly small,13  which encouraged chaotic secondary migration of asylum seekers towards Germany. If the EU’s Dublin rules14  had been suspended de facto, Merkel’s government made the policy explicit by announcing at the end of the summer of 2015 that Germany was open to all asylum seekers who were in the EU – notwithstanding the requirement that they undergo asylum proceedings in the first EU country that they reach.15

Once the uncontrolled inflow of asylum seekers became a political liability a couple of weeks later, the ‘wir schaffen das’ attitude was thrown overboard in favour of a straightforward bargain with Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, offering his government 3 billion euros in exchange for Turkey’s commitment to tighten controls on migration towards the EU.16

The central question is whether the Merkelian political style is firmly baked into German political life, or whether a shake-up is still possible

Of course, Merkel deserves a lot of the credit for introducing and sustaining the EU’s sanctions regime against Putin’s regime following the illegal annexation of Crimea and the fomenting of conflict in Eastern Ukraine. However, sanctions came as a half-hearted fix after earlier blunders. Those included the lack of a more strategic, as opposed to purely technocratic, approach towards the EU’s engagement with Ukraine – which should have taken Russian belligerence as a real possibility and sought to deter it using instruments of hard power, breaking another German taboo of the post-war era.

Merkel’s approach to global politics was labelled by her chief foreign policy advisor Christoph Heusgen as “strategic patience”.17  In practice, it involves ignoring festering crises and insisting on ‘business as usual’ until the last possible moment, when the German chancellor puts her firefighting qualities on display, framing her responses again in a technocratic way as ‘having no alternative’.

Needless to say, this is hardly an adequate or a sustainable guiding principle for foreign and security policy for either Germany or the EU. The central question of the upcoming German federal election in September 2021, therefore, is whether the Merkelian political style is firmly baked into German political life, or whether a shake-up is still possible. I am not holding my breath.


Dalibor Rohac
Resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI)