September 9, 2021

After 16 years, Angela Merkel’s long reign as German Chancellor is drawing to a close. So prepare yourself, preferably with a sick bag, because the hagiographies will be nauseating. 

Just as Boris Johnson represents everything that British remainers hate about Britain, Angela Merkel embodies everything they love about Germany — the country they regard as the grown-up in the room.

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Her fans do have half-a-point. Merkel is the epitome of Germany’s role in the world. But as we’ll see, that’s not something to be proud of. Indeed, the closer you look at her record, the less there is to show for it. 

There’s no denying her staying-power. When she first became Chancellor, in 2005, her opposite numbers in Britain and America were Tony Blair and George W Bush. She certainly hasn’t lacked for time.

Or look at it this way: just one Chancellor (Gerhard Schröder) separates Merkel’s Chancellorship from that of her mentor, Helmut Kohl. However, there were five Prime Ministers between Boris Johnson and Kohl’s contemporary, Margaret Thatcher (and five Presidents between Joe Biden and Ronnie Reagan). Is it any wonder that Germany’s leaders look down upon their allies with a certain Teutonic superiority?

With so many terms as Chancellor one might assume Merkel to be a political genius — an election-winning machine in the mould of a Blair or Thatcher. But that’s not the case. In fact, she’s bungled one election after another. 

The first one was 2002. As leader of the Christian Democrats (CDU), Merkel should have been the centre-Right’s candidate for Chancellor. But instead she was out-manoeuvred by Edmund Stoiber — the leader of the CSU (the CDU’s Bavarian sister party).

She had to wait until 2005 to get her first shot at the top job — and she very nearly blew it. A lead in the polls was lost after loose talk about introducing a flat tax. Instead of increasing her party’s vote share as expected, she reduced it. She was only saved by the fact that the incumbent Chancellor — Schröder — lost more votes that she did. 

It was a shattering experience for Merkel — but it taught her two things: Firstly, never to be interesting again. And, secondly, that she didn’t have to succeed in order to win, she just had to do less worse than her rivals. 

And so she became Chancellor — but only by forming a “Grand Coalition” with the Social Democrats. At the next election in 2009, her vote share went down again. Luckily for her, her coalition partners (and main electoral opponents) were pulverised. Moving swiftly on, she swapped them for a new coalition partner — the Free Democrats.

Her second term in office was dominated by the Eurozone crisis. That was when the rest of the EU realised who was in charge. The so-called ‘PIIGS’ — Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece and Spain — were forced into austerity measures that made George Osborne’s budgets look positively Keynesian.

Populist protest movements began to stir all over Europe. But Merkel didn’t mind. Her hardline policies were popular at home and at the next election in 2013, she scored her one clear victory — the highest share of the vote for the CDU since the days of Kohl. Yet, as per usual, her allies didn’t fare so well. In fact, the Free Democrats crashed out of the Bundestag altogether.

Shortly before he became Prime Minister, David Cameron asked Angela Merkel what it was like to lead a coalition. “The little party always gets smashed”, she observed through crocodile tears. In 2013, Merkel needed a new little party, having broken the old one. In practice, that meant another Grand Coalition with Social Democrats.

And so we come to Merkel’s calamitous third term in office — and in particular her chaotic mishandling of the refugee crisis. The Syrian civil war wasn’t her fault, of course. Nor is there anything wrong with helping refugees. However, suddenly flinging open Germany’s borders (and then slamming them shut again) was entirely the wrong way of going about it. She destabilised politics at home and abroad — while providing a massive encouragement to the people smugglers.

In the 2017 German general election, the CSU was punished with its worst result since the 1950s and the Social Democrats with their worst result since the 1930s. They still had enough seats to cobble together a not-so-Grand Coalition, but the populist AfD was left as the largest opposition party.

So, with the exception of 2013, Merkel has never received a ringing endorsement from the German electorate. She’s just been in the best position to pick up the pieces of her own political failures.

Then again, holding together a broken system is what she’s all about. That’s not just in Germany, but across Europe — where the system in question is the single currency.

German leaders — and Merkel is no exception — love to preach fiscal responsibility. They’re in a strong position to do so: Germany’s record of balanced budgets compares well to the spiralling debts of other nations. 

The bit that’s left unsaid, however, is that German rectitude is built upon a mercantilist scam of continental proportions. The Eurozone is a distorting mirror whose effect is to make German exports permanently cheaper than they should be and those of weaker economies more expensive. Add to that the trade barriers erected around the Single Market (but removed within it) and German exporters can hardly fail.

The trade imbalance forces Germany’s partners into debt — and thus dependency upon the European Central Bank, conveniently headquartered in Frankfurt. Right how, the deficits of countries like Italy and Spain are entirely financed by ECB bond purchases — which means they must do as they’re told. 

Merkel did not design the Eurozone. She inherited the system from her predecessors. Nevertheless, during her Chancellorship, Germany has exploited its position to reach a level of economic and political dominance that is, if not unprecedented, unusual for having been achieved through peaceful means.  

Very few German politicians are willing to say any of this out loud. One of them is Sahra Wagenknecht, an outlier even within her own Left Party. She has accused her country of “abusing a highly dangerous, half-hegemonic position.”

“Half-hegemonic” is exactly right. Germany dominates, but it doesn’t lead. Under Merkel, Germany’s power has been used not for reform but to embed the status quo — no matter how difficult a position this places her friends in. 

She is, for instance, directly responsible for Brexit. By refusing to give David Cameron any concession on free movement of people across borders she doomed the Remain campaign to defeat. For her, the theoretical framework of the “four freedoms” was more important than the real world difficulties of an English-speaking nation that was wide open to the impact of uncontrolled immigration. 

Another failure of leadership is Europe’s security. When Donald Trump was elected President, the New York Times breathlessly proclaimed Merkel the “the liberal’s West’s last defender”. Really? Her and whose army? Certainly not the sub-par German military, nor the fabled European Army that Merkel paid lip service to but never had any intention of paying for. Meanwhile Trump has come and gone, and America is still defending Europe’s borders.

Germany’s main contribution to Europe’s security during the Merkel years has been to undermine it. On the one hand Germany joins in with ritual denunciations of Russian and Chinese aggression, but on the other enthusiastically pursues lucrative trading relationships with both regimes. 

There’s no better example of this than the Nord Stream gas pipeline that runs from Russia to Germany via the Baltic Sea. The route is specifically chosen to bypass Russia’s vulnerable neighbours, thus weakening their economic and strategic positions at a time of growing tension. Merkel wasn’t responsible for the first of these pipelines, but it was her government that doubled down with Nord Stream 2, in the face of bitter opposition from Poland, Slovakia and Ukraine. 

Germany wouldn’t be so dependent on Russian fossil fuel imports if it had made more progress on decarbonising its economy. For a while this was a policy area on which Germany did, for once, take the lead. Merkel went out of her way to identify herself with the issue, becoming known as the Klimatkanzlerin (“Climate Chancellor”). 

But that went out the window when, in the wake of the Fukushima disaster, she caved in to a crazy plan to phase out Germany’s existing nuclear power stations. Not even Japan, where the disaster actually happened, went that far. By prioritising the end of nuclear over the end of coal, Germany will continue spewing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere until 2038. 

It is now the United Kingdom that leads the world’s biggest economies on this issue — and Boris Johnson who’ll preside over the closure of the last British coal-fired power station in just two years time. 

Aside from global warming, Merkel has bequeathed two final gifts to the world. The first is Ursula von der Leyen — the deeply unimpressive defence minister who Merkel installed as President of European Commission. It was a foolish appointment, as made clear in the shambles of the vaccine procurement programme.

Merkel’s other parting shot is Armin Laschet, her chosen successor as leader of the CDU and candidate for Chancellor. This is a man is so uninspiring that German voters have turned to the dying Social Democrats in desperation. 

The CDU, meanwhile, is set to get its worst ever result — a verdict not just on Herr Laschet, but on 16 years of Angela Merkel.