After a send-off last week that featured military honours and a song by East German punk icon Nina Hagen, Angela Merkel will on Wednesday give way to her successor Olaf Scholz. Die Kanzlerin will be sorely missed by the entire Western liberal establishment, which has had a crush on her for the past 16 years. Her French biographer Marion Van Renterghem has already crooned in The Guardian that “Europe is losing its moral compass — how will it find its way without Merkel?’’ In his farewell video, Barack Obama practically bestowed sainthood upon her: “Your beloved German people, and the entire world, owe you a debt of gratitude for taking the high ground for so many years.”
What form did this ‘high ground’ take? According to the Harvard student who introduced her 2019 commencement speech at the Ivy League college with a litany of her good deeds: “She has passed Germany’s first minimum wage, closed Germany’s nuclear plants after the Fukushima nuclear explosion, promoted marriage equality, led progress in tackling climate change, and opened her country to over one million refugees from the wars of the Middle East.”
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Merkel’s junior coalition partners the Social Democrats would no doubt roll their eyes if they heard that; the policies listed by the Harvard student were all theirs. Take the legalisation of same-sex marriage. Merkel, a conservative, actually opposed it for all of her career, but, sensing a shift in the Zeitgeist, let it pass through parliament in 2017.
But that was typical Merkel. She always let the public mood determine her policy choices: she was the first German chancellor to receive a weekly detailed briefing on opinion research from her press department. Perhaps that’s why she was synonymous with dithering, sitting on the fence and remaining quiet on key issues — so much so that a neologism was spawned: merkeln, the Langenscheidt dictionary’s 2015 word of the year. “To Merkel” is defined as “to do nothing, make no decisions, issue no statements”.
It was not her strong convictions that endeared her with German voters. It was her lack of them. She is the opposite of a visionary; once asked what she associated with Germany, she said “well-made windows”. Not Germany’s rich cultural heritage, not its landscapes, not its football squad, not even its robust Grundgesetz (a set of basic laws put in place after the war, essentially a constitution). Far more important are its… well-sealed windows.
So, is she really the “liberal West’s last defender”, as the New York Times would have it? Much of the ‘moral compass’ talk is based on Merkel’s momentous decision to open the German border to more than a million refugees from Syria and elsewhere in 2015. No doubt it was an event of historic importance that changed Germany and Europe forever. But was it really on par with Willy Brandt’s epic 1970 genuflection in Warsaw, as some have suggested? Or, as some commentators said at the time, a monumental, healing gesture that showed the world that Germany had finally shaken off its Nazi baggage and become a force for good? Not quite.
Only two months before she opened the borders, Merkel had appeared at a townhall-style event called Living Well in Germany, in which she engaged with a group of teenagers from across the country. There, Reem Sahwil, a 14-year-old Palestinian refugee who spoke flawless German and had stellar marks in school, expressed her fear that her family would be deported, extinguishing her dream of attending university in Germany. Without a hint of empathy, Merkel told her that if everyone like her stayed, thousands of other refugees from the Middle East and Africa would flood into Germany, something the country couldn’t cope with. When Sahwil began to cry, Merkel said: “But you’ve done really well for yourself. Let me give you a stroke.” (Something she actually did.)
When, just two months later, tens of thousands of Syrians were passing through Hungary and Austria towards Germany, Merkel first considered taking a hardline approach and mobilising thousands of police officers to secure the southern frontier. Opinion polls, however, suggested most Germans favoured a compassionate, welcoming approach. So without consulting EU partners, she opened the borders. Within days, she was shooting selfies with young Syrian men.
In a matter of months, however, Merkel’s centre-right Christian Democrats (CDU) started to haemorrhage support. And the supposedly moral Merkel was soon replaced by her old pragmatic, shape-shifting political self. She tried to export the refugee problem to the outer borders of the EU and brokered a dodgy deal with the authoritarian Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to stem the tide of human beings fleeing across the Aegean. To placate the conservative wing of the CDU, she spoke at a December 2016 party conference of banning the burqa — to jubilant applause. She also started to take a harder line on the deportation of refugees and asylum seekers who had committed crimes, even to war-torn Afghanistan and Syria.
But for many it was too late. The massive influx of refugees was the boost the odious, far-right AfD had been waiting for. Largely thanks to Merkel’s shambolic immigration policy, the party is now a permanent fixture of German politics and commands a majority in two eastern states.
Merkel’s political contortions extend well beyond immigration, however. On climate policy, too, she has been immensely disappointing. Granted, she had a few successes on the diplomatic stage, such as persuading Russia’s Vladimir Putin to sign up to the Paris Agreement. But when it comes to actually reducing Germany’s climate footprint, her governments’ actions have been woefully half-hearted. Following a tiny slump during the pandemic, carbon dioxide emissions are up again, and it looks unlikely that Germany will hit its target of a 65% drop in emissions from 1990 levels.
Meanwhile, after the 2011 Fukushima nuclear accident, Merkel rushed to fast track Germany’s plan to drop nuclear power. Yet renewables haven’t picked up enough to fill in the gap in power production. Instead, Merkel has pushed for the Nord Stream pipeline (admittedly initiated by her predecessor Gerhard Schröder, who now even sits on the operator’s board) through the Baltic Sea, enabling Germany to pipe in Russian gas directly without paying fees to those pesky middlemen such as Ukraine and the Czech Republic. Did her moral compass slide off deck?
And then, as always in Germany, there is das Auto. Successive Merkel governments have been slavishly beholden to the car industry. How else are we to explain Dieselgate, where it took the US authorities — and not the corrupt or incompetent German regulators — to reveal that Volkswagen was installing software that enabled its cars to cheat during emissions testing. Sales of German cars fell briefly. But few heads rolled.
Instead, Merkel merkelled: she held ‘diesel summits’ at which the hitherto extremely profitable carmakers — the perpetrators — begged for and received mountains of cash in the form of subsidies and government-funded customer incentives to prop up demand for electric, petrol and — yep — diesel cars of the slightly cleaner variety.
But Dieselgate was, for the most part, unexceptional. The Merkel years were defined by scandals of incompetence and corruption, none of which, incredibly, stuck to the chancellor herself. She had a knack for outsourcing difficult decisions to commissions, for delegating hot button issues to her foot soldiers. It was always easy for the press to point a finger to one of her flailing ministers. She remained aloof from the mudslinging — while working on her ‘moral compass’ act with earnest speeches and high-profile international negotiations.
Yes, she was Germany’s first female leader, and the first chancellor from the East. But the fact that she was a protestant pastor’s daughter in a communist country — a tale of humble origins spun in every English-language profile — didn’t make her the deeply moral politician so many made her out to be. Rather, during the Trump years, when it felt that the world was being taken over by blustering male populists, her plodding, unflashy style made her stand out. Against that backdrop, her measured mediocrity was mistaken for a moral virtue.
That probably isn’t what Obama had in mind when he spoke of her saintly principles. But let’s not forget that even saints are only human.