The Myth of Angela Merkel

At the height of Angela Merkel’s powers, the outgoing German chancellor was hailed as the leader of the free world – the supreme defender of the liberal order in an age of populism, and the saviour of Europe in an age of nationalist revanchism. But as Merkel exits the stage, after 16 years at the helm of Europe’s largest and most prosperous nation, the commentary has been much more muted. Hagiographies of her years in power are few and far between. Could the myth of Merkel finally be starting to unravel?

There is no question that Merkel is a formidable politician. Her 16-year reign makes her one of Germany’s longest-serving chancellors, placing her alongside the likes of Otto von Bismarck and Helmut Kohl. But while Merkel’s staying power, her dominance, her supreme talent for self-preservation may have served her well, she leaves her party, her country and Europe in a weakened state.

Merkel is, above all, an opportunist. She is a politician who has moved with the times, who has ably outmaneuvered her rivals in and outside her party. ‘Merkiavelli’ is how she was dubbed by the late sociologist Ulrich Beck. She is a political shape-shifter. On the economy, Merkel began her chancellorship as a fiscal hawk, keeping a tight grip on the budget strings for most of her time in office. She leaves office having authorised some of the most generous pandemic spending in the world. On cultural questions, she was at times a social conservative, opposing gay marriage, and other times a hyper-liberal, opening Germany’s borders to a million refugees. Merkel has no ideology beyond what works for Merkel.

And this has made it impossible for German politicians to emerge from her shadow. She has managed to dominate the German political scene to such an extent that even Germany’s first post-Merkel elections at the weekend were overshadowed by her presence. This has come at a huge cost to her party, the CDU. It is wracked by infighting and uncertainty over what direction it should go in. Its two successors to Merkel have both imploded spectacularly. First, there was ‘mini Merkel’ Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer who lasted less than a year as CDU leader. Now there is the hapless Armin Laschet, who couldn’t manage to muster even 25 per cent of the vote in this week’s elections – the CDU’s worst-ever result. This was once the dominant party of postwar Germany. Germany has had a CDU chancellor for 57 of the 72 years of the federal republic. But Merkel has left the party a hollowed-out husk.

Even the rival Social Democrats, the SPD, cannot break free from Merkel’s mould. The SPD’s Olaf Scholz, who narrowly won the election, served as Merkel’s vice-chancellor and finance minister in coalition. During the campaign he presented himself as the continuity candidate rather than the change candidate. He even copied Merkel’s signature hand gesture – the ‘Merkel rhombus’ – to ram this message home.

But for a politician who so many are desperate to ape, and whose legacy they are so terrified to break from, Merkel’s time in office has not exactly worked wonders for the country she served.

Just look at the German economy. As Wolfgang Streeck has argued on spiked, the economic conditions Merkel inherited were incredibly favourable. Her predecessor, the SPD’s Gerhard Schröder, had brought Germany into the Euro, and had already squeezed the wages of German workers (with the connivance of the trade unions). This made German exports more competitive, even at a time when other developed countries were offshoring their manufacturing bases to the Far East. The SPD paid a heavy political price for these reforms, but Merkel gobbled up the spoils.

So what ideas did Merkel bring to the table? Not many. When she first ran for election in 2005, she presented herself as a hardline Thatcherite. She wanted a flat tax, welfare cuts, labour-market deregulation. She set herself in opposition to the German economic model – in particular, against the ‘social partnership’ that brings together the state, the private sector and labour unions – in favour of a more Anglosphere style of capitalism. But after only narrowly winning the election, and after forming a coalition with the Social Democrats, most of these plans were dropped. She discovered that she had actually loved the social partnership all along, and that her predecessors had already done the heavy lifting when it came to labour-market reforms.

Throughout much of Merkel’s time as chancellor, the German economy seemed to be in good shape. It weathered the 2008 financial crash far better than the rest of the West. Germany became a by-word for economic success, efficiency and resilience.

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