Angela Merkel assumed office as Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany on November 22nd, 2005. She has been in office, unbroken, and undefeated, ever since. Her sixteen years at the helm have seen her deal with four American Presidents, Five UK Prime Ministers, four Presidents of France, and five Irish Taoisigh. She has ruled longer than Margaret Thatcher did, and won four national elections. Somebody once said that all political careers end in failure: On the face of it, that is not true of Merkel. She leaves office this weekend on her own terms, undefeated, and recognised by all as the most influential and powerful person in European Politics in the 21st century, at least to date.
Less spoken about, however, is her record. Angela Merkel, after all, has presided, since she took power, over a great recession. And a refugee crisis. Her inflexibility in 2007 and 2008, and the years which followed, condemned Greece and Ireland and other European countries to a decade of economic pain. Her decision to unilaterally declare that she would accept a million refugees into Europe in 2015 sparked an immigration crisis which has destabilised European politics. The European Union is vastly less united today than it was when she took office – Britain has left, and eastern Europe, through the Visigrad alliance of countries, now poses a big internal challenge to the coherence of European policy. Much of that discord can fairly be described as a reaction to Merkel, and Merkelism.
During her time in office, Chinese influence in Europe has grown exponentially. Chinese companies like Huawei now dominate the European telecommunications space. European defence capabilities, meanwhile, have atrophied. Europe, as we see in the present moment, has become devastatingly reliant on Russian energy and natural gas. Under Angela Merkel, Germany, and Europe, have ended up at the mercy of President Putin, who has the power to turn off the gas taps in Winter, should the mood ever take him.
Politicians, really, should be judged on a simple criterion: Is their country, and the world, in a better, or worse, place, as a result of their time in office? There are few who could convincingly argue that either Germany, or the EU, is stronger or better today than it was in 2005.
Not all of this is Merkel’s fault. She caused neither the economic crash, or the immigrant crisis, or the coronavirus pandemic. But her response to the first two have unleashed long term trends which have indisputably weakened European coherence, and European harmony.
In the case of the Eurozone crisis, Merkel insisted that rather than reforming the Euro, the project would be saved by making every country in Europe more like Germany. This is what academics would call “cultural imperialism”, were it attempted by the British, or the Americans. In the case of Merkel, she got away with it, and the result was a decade of austerity in Greece, and in Ireland, whose taxpayers were expected to pay for the bad investments made by German bankers, while those bankers suffered no losses. The bitterness over that decision runs deep, even if sometimes subconsciously, in the rest of Europe.
In 2015, Merkel announced that Germany would accept 1.1million Syrian refugees. The result, predictably enough, was a scramble to enter Europe. With the doors flung wide open, millions rushed towards them. The result was, and is, an ongoing migrant crisis which, naturally enough, has ended up hurting the Italians and the Greeks as much, if not much more, than the Germans. It has also unleashed populist, migrant-sceptic politics across the EU, fuelling the rise of politicians like Matteo Salvini, and Victor Orban. Whether you agree with Salvini and Orban or not, the fact is that their rise has undermined Merkel’s vision for Europe, and means that her decision actively contributed to her own failure.
Geopolitically, the EU and Germany are both weaker, and less relevant, today than they were when Merkel took office. Over her time in power, the EU has moved from being the world’s second superpower, to playing third fiddle to the Americans, and the Chinese. Strategically, Europe is now in a very weak position – dependent on the Russians for Energy, and the Chinese for Industry, and the Americans for defence.
Not all of this is Merkel’s fault. Some of it was probably inevitable. But throughout all of it, her position has been one of passivity, and acceptance. She has presided, for sixteen long years, over decline. When she took power, the dream of a United European Superstate seemed within reach. Now, it seems further away than ever.
There are many worse things one could say about a politician than what one can say about Merkel. She started no wars. Average earnings increased. Life for the average German is no worse, you might say, than when she took power. Germany, only reunited for a decade or more when she came to office, is now a convincingly unified state. But at the same time, she has presided over a European decline, while being, for all that time, the universally recognised most powerful woman in Europe.
She should not be missed. And in most of Europe, she will not be missed.