OOne of the most iconic political photographs of recent times was taken at a G7 summit in Canada in 2018. Leaning forward on a narrow table, hands outstretched, a dark-faced Angela Merkel confronts Donald Trump, sitting with folded arms, refusing to meet his gaze. Emmanuel Macron and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe accompany the German Chancellor as she despises the US president.
As Merkel prepares to step down as chancellor after next Sunday’s German elections, after 16 years, the picture sums up her recent role as a bulwark of liberal values in times of turmoil. Amid a resurgent nationalism and deep political polarization across the West, the oldest and most influential European leader of the 21st century has been a critical standard-bearer for a consensual and rules-based way of doing things. playing politics on the world stage. The political virtues she embodied during her long reign – patience, tolerance, lack of vehemence and aversion to the spectacle – have taken on their full meaning, as cultural wars proliferate on all sides. His famous decision to keep Germany’s borders open to Syrian refugees in 2015 demonstrated a generosity of spirit and compassion to which all Western democracies should aspire.
But beyond the upheavals of recent years, the overall legacy of Germany’s first female Chancellor is more complex and enigmatic. Internally, Merkelism has become synonymous with an ecumenical and managerial policy in the city center. The global financial crash has tempered Ms. Merkel’s neoliberal economic instincts, and for 12 of her 16 years as Chancellor she led a Democratic-Christian-Social-Democratic “grand coalition.” This hampered attempts by its center-left opponents to present itself as a distinct alternative and allowed it to reap the political rewards of successful policies such as a new minimum wage – which was a condition for the SPD to join the coalition. in 2013. Although Merkel’s political convictions are difficult to pin down, a certain ambiguity, flexibility and calculated blandness become the secret to her success. Four successful federal elections have demonstrated the effectiveness of an inherently prudent approach. But lately his tenure has not been fulfilled in the poorest east, where right-wing AfD nationalists have enjoyed significant success amid growing disillusionment.
The deliberately low-key style has worked for many of the crises that have plagued Merkel. But some challenges could have benefited from greater imagination and strategic ambition. In Europe, his consensus building skills have for the most part been a considerable asset, particularly in ensure fiscal solidarity between European Union member states during the Covid-19 pandemic. But the punitive austerity imposed on southern European states during the European debt crisis in the early 2010s – which Merkel and her then finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble insisted on – was deeply flawed and undemocratic, and failed to address the real flaws in the area’s economic architecture euro. The backlash helped usher in an era of political turmoil and populist insurgencies, and brought nationalism back into fashion.
More recently, opponents of Merkel’s Greens were right to criticize the slow timeline to end the country’s dependence on coal and the lack of financial clout to enable a fair green transition. With regard to China, whose appetite for German exports underlies its economic model, it pursues a profitable accommodation policy which appears to be out of step with the evolution of geopolitical times.
Nonetheless, Merkel’s status as one of the most formidable, skillful and confident political leaders of modern times is beyond doubt. In the 21st century, no other leader comes close. Since working as a quantum physicist in the former East Germany, she has been an avid reader of history. During a tenure that only Otto von Bismarck improved upon, she may have had the chance to shape her own time more than she did. But his reassuring, stable and constructive presence in Western politics will be sorely missed.