This coming Sunday will mark the end of an era. Germany’s second-longest-serving Chancellor, Dr Angela Merkel will stand down after sixteen years. Since I moved to Germany in 2013, all I’ve ever known is Merkel. And in that time, I confess – I’ve caught feelings.
As a member of the British Labour Party since the day I turned 16 and the daughter of a former Labour Councillor, I’m a dyed-in-the-wool, bleeding-heart socialist. If you were to cut me open, I’d have ‘fuck the Tories’ written throughout like a stick of Blackpool rock. And yet, on Sunday night, I may well find myself shedding tears at the departure of a Conservative politician.
So how did it happen that, with such a background, I fell for Angela Merkel?
Our type on paper
I’m not alone in holding a candle for the woman born Angela Dorothea Kasner in 1954. In objective terms, Merkel has been good for Germany and largely good for Europe. At the beginning of her tenure in 2005, GDP per capita in Germany was below that of the UK and France. It now outstrips both of these countries.
That rise was partially thanks to a controversial legacy inherited from the previous administration. But Germany’s comparatively swift recovery from the 2008 financial crash came as a result of Merkel’s understanding of and reliance on her country’s inherent economic and social strengths. Likewise, Germany has weathered the coronavirus storm better than other nations because of a healthcare system that has been well looked after and the presence of sensible public debate.
Merkel’s political scorecard would be admirable at any time, not least at a time when the world has found itself in an ever-quickening spiral of disarray. But that’s not the reason I fell for her.
A first flush of love
For me, there are two clear incidents that have marked Merkel out as the most extraordinary politician of the era. The first, rather obviously given my creed, was the manner in which she managed the refugee crisis of 2015.
As Syria’s civil war escalated and the region collapsed into chaos, hundreds of thousands of refugees began the gruelling journey to and through Europe. The European response to the development was embarrassingly fractured. While Merkel’s Germany opened its borders, many other nations pulled up the drawbridge, leaving millions of desperate people stranded. Germany processed 1.4 million asylum applications between 2015 and 2017. By comparison, the UK processed fewer than a hundred thousand.
Worthy though it clearly was, Merkel’s decision to give sanctuary to traumatised people fleeing conflict was not wholly driven by compassion. Like many European countries, Germany has an aging population. The influx of young, fit and eager workers is likely to be viewed a boon in years to come.
And that’s exactly why I admire her: she’s good, but she’s also smart, and she’s a brilliant politician because she recognises when these qualities align.
The same can be said of the second incident that made me fall for Merkel’s political charms. It’s one that, at first glance, may seem counterintuitive.
The seven year itch?
The introduction of same-sex marriage has long been overdue in general and, in a social democracy like Germany, especially so. This was in no small part due to Merkel’s hesitancy to bring the issue to the floor of the Bundestag. For this, I would be the first to criticise her.
However, the vote on equal marriage eventually came and was passed in 2017. In full Merkel-tradition, it was almost certainly a politically-calculated move, again the serendipitous alignment of ‘good’ and ‘smart’ (the alternative view being that it was a slip-up). The vote took place three months before the General Election and, in allowing it, Merkel neutralised a key campaign issue of the opposition centrist and left-wing parties. She gave her party a free vote, framing it as ‘one of conscience’. Merkel, herself, is believed to have voted against the bill, despite having expressed a shift in her attitudes in recent years.
At the end of the day, Merkel is a conservative, the daughter of a pastor, raised in then-Communist East Germany. As the leader of the country’s Conservative party, the CDU, and with an eye to the dangers posed by the emerging right, as well as critics and traditionalists within her own party, Merkel had little option but to vote against, knowing that the proposal had sufficient support to pass regardless.
This incident might have put me off Merkel by raising exactly the wrong kind of red flag. In fact, it had the opposite effect. In admitting that the world was evolving, and she with it, and in allowing her party to vote freely, it was a prime example of what has been Merkel’s defining characteristic on the world stage: behaving like a grown-up.
Unlike so many of her peers, she has been precisely what she was elected to be – a public servant. Not a petty, thin-skinned, self-serving narcissist, but a genuine representative of a diverse people.
Merkel has always trodden the fine line of trying to antagonise as few people as possible on all sides. By making concessions rather than remaining entrenched in dogma, it has enabled her to form a series of functioning governmental coalitions that took her country from the ‘sick man of Europe’ to the continent’s leading economic and political power. That is grown-up politics.
I’m happy to admit that Merkel has been far from perfect. It would be remiss of me not to highlight a number of her failings.
With the exception of the same-sex marriage and adoption votes, social policy (as one might imagine after sixteen years of Conservative government) has been woefully neglected. The New Year’s Eve incident in Cologne highlighted how regressive laws on sexual assault still are. Access to abortion is still not in line with World Health Organisation recommendations (there remains a compulsory ‘cooling off period’ after a procedure is requested and women are mandated to undergo counselling). The tax system still heavily favours marriage, leading to fewer women engaging in full-time employment. Reproductive assistance is hamstrung by outdated legislation. All of these aspects require the progressive touch of a more liberal administration.
Furthermore, despite economic successes, Merkel has been old-fashioned in her approach to technology, specifically digitalisation. If Germany wants to maintain its competitive edge in the new world, this is an area that demands immediate attention from the new leader.
Finally, there are plenty among my ilk who have viewed her as something of a tyrant, throwing her country’s economic might around Europe in order to subjugate the periphery. Her handling of the Greek Debt Crisis came in for especially heavy criticism. While her approach in that particular crisis was tough (to say the least), the Euro and the European Union project survived as a result.
The end of the affair
As she prepares to step down, Angela Merkel’s popularity ratings have seldom been higher, and that comes as no surprise.
In a world of Johnsons, Trumps and Bolsonaros, Merkel has been stability over recklessness, rationality over conspiracy, and dignity over egotism. At a time when weak men and even weaker morals seem to have been the order of the day, she has been a beacon of compassion, graciousness and professionalism.
But Merkel is not just decent by comparison. At any time in history, she would have been recognised as an effective and thoughtful leader.
And most importantly, for me at least, she has taught me that while my ethics may be fixed, how to apply them can be flexible. She has reminded me that humility is the most effective form of leadership, reinvigorated my interest in ‘proper’ politics, and even brought me out of my shell as a writer and activist.
I’m not alone in fearing for the post-Merkel future. One of the worst possible outcomes would be a CDU/CSU victory – all the damage of another conservative-led government without the moderating force of Angela Merkel.
The Social Democrats and (less so) the Greens are polling well (at time of publishing…) so there are grounds for optimism. Much as I’ll miss Merkel personally, it is more than time for an actively progressive, rather than a sluggishly modernising government.
Weigh in! How do you think history will remember Angela Merkel? What are your wishes and expectations for the new government in Germany?