European Waves

The end of an era: reflections on Angela Merkel

For many young Germans, Angela Merkel is the face of German politics.On the 26th of September 2021, the general elections are taking place in Germany. While we cannot say anything about the outcome yet, one thing is certain: Angela Merkel will no longer be chancellor of Germany, after almost 16 years. Lea Siebel (24), Damian Krämer (23), Esther Eumann (23) and Lennart Paetz (24) grew up with Merkel as chancellor and have little recollection of her predecessor, Gerhard Schröder. In this article, they reflect on Merkel’s time in power.

    Merkel became chancellor on the 22nd of November 2005 after her party, the Christian Democrats (CDU), narrowly defeated the Social Democrats (SPD) in the 2005 general elections. She became the first woman to do so and also the first chancellor to have grown up in East Germany. Originally a physicist, she entered politics in 1989 shortly before the fall of the Berlin wall. In 1990 she joined the CDU, becoming general secretary in 1998 and the leader of the party in 2000. As a woman and a protestant from the East, she was very much an outsider in the party that tended to be dominated by Catholic men from the West (and some would argue still is). Over the last sixteen years, she has become iconic for her stoic expressions and the “Merkel-rhombus” amongst other things. In her time in power, Merkel has been a steady presence in both national and international politics. Her exit from the political stage will mark the end of an era – time therefore to reflect on what this means for us – but also for Germany and Europe. 

 

Lea (24) reflecting on Angela Merkel, her migration policies and “Wir schaffen das.”

Angela Merkel has been described as many things, among them being an inconspicuous person. However, there are some remarkable things about her: this includes her iconic hand gesture, her characteristic blazers, her pragmatism as well as her (often criticized) ability to simply ‘sit out’ crises. Another one is her iconic sentence “Wir schaffen das – We will manage this/We can do this”. It became the slogan for the fall of 2015 which saw large numbers of refugees coming to Europe and especially to Germany. With this sentence, Merkel aimed to assure the public that this so-called crisis was ‘manageable’ and to also encourage the Germans to see this situation as an opportunity for the country. 

At one point, this sentence became a symbol for the so-called ‘migration crisis’ – and not just in Germany. It has been quoted numerous times; sometimes in a mantra-like repetition by fellow politicians or mockingly by opponents. However, no matter one’s individual opinion on it, no one can refute that this was a powerful statement that long defined Germany’s approach to handling the so-called migration crisis of 2015 and later.

The impacts and consequences of it have been discussed in-depth and from almost every perspective possible. To me personally, her action and this sentence were most of all one thing: a seemingly simple act of compassion. I remember seeing the pictures of migrants holding out at the borders of Europe, lacking access to almost everything. Media coverage every day, more people in need of help every day and no aid in sight.. So, when Merkel allowed these distressed people to come, she gave them more than just shelter: she gave them hope. This act of compassion transformed her, in my eyes, to a “special” kind of politician. In this moment she became different from other politicians. Different from those who simply stand in front of the cameras demanding that action must be taken, when they in fact hold the power to actually change something. 

Tackling the situation was of course not as easy as a simple sentence. Merkel later criticized her own approach to the influx of migrants and stated that if in the same situation again she would not say “Wir schaffen das” again.

For this sentence and her general approach to this crisis Merkel has been criticized plenty: by members of her own party, foreign leaders or the public. Interestingly, many of her harshest critics are no longer in power (such as former US president Donald Trump or former MEP and party leader Nigel Farage) while her approval ratings have been consistently high and she was elected for a fourth term as chancellor of Germany. I am not a supporter of Merkel’s party, I also do not support many of her policies, especially concerning migration. However, I still very much respect her willingness to act when help was so urgently needed. She did not ‘sit this one out’ like she did with other crises. I do recognize that she only offered a simple, short-term solution to a complex problem. Nevertheless, I still believe that she positively impacted the lives of many people looking for a better future. 

Angela Merkel will be remembered for many things, including her approach to, and the handling of the so-called migration crisis. It will also be among the things I will remember most about her time as the chancellor of Germany.

 

Damian (23) reflecting on Angela Merkel’s style of political communication 

Angela Merkel was not only the first woman to head the German federal government, but she also established a completely different communication style that differs in many ways from that established by her male predecessors. 

This was particularly noticeable during the Covid-19 pandemic and the first lockdown in Germany. There was, as everywhere else in the world, great uncertainty and fear: on the one hand, because of the possible dangers of contracting Covid-19, and on the other, because of restrictive government measures to contain infections with an intensity that Germany had not experienced since its founding in 1949. Accordingly, the ‘anxiety and depression level’ initially rose considerably. But then Merkel addressed the citizens, giving a speech, and scientists at the Essen University were able to measure a significant decline in this negative mood.  This is not least due to the fact that Merkel’s political communication has given her the reputation of a calm and thoughtful crisis manager. Be it the euro crisis, the so-called migration crisis or how to deal with Trump in a looming trade war with the US. Angela Merkel has experienced many crises during her time in office and has always communicated to the outside world in a matter-of-fact and level-headed manner. She has never become loud, emotional or unobjective or allowed herself to be provoked by other (mainly) statesmen. She appears to be completely above the airs and graces of day-to-day politics, which are played out in the media, and then appears in an emergency situation as a trustworthy mediator who does not give the impression of doing this only for personal prestige. Our parents’ generation can still remember characters like Kohl or Schröder, who in their function as chancellors often acted in a blustering and emotional manner and put their foot in it. But not Merkel. She has brought a completely new political style to the chancellery. 

Nevertheless, this style of politics and communication also has its price. Merkel rarely interferes and is not conspicuous for publicly explaining her policies and participating in fruitful debates. She prefers to leave that to the second row. It almost seems at times that she waits until the storm in a teacup has subsided before she even reacts. This refusal of discourse and confrontation was once described by an unsuccessful Social Democratic candidate running for chancellor as an ‘attack on democracy’.  Although this polemical statement truly cannot be taken seriously, it remains to be noted that it would have done Germany’s democracy good at times if its chancellor had been a little more present and proactive.

The only thing that seems certain is that Merkel’s term will leave a gap behind which will be difficult for her successor to fill. During the current election campaign period, some people already miss her sober manner.

 

 

Esther (23) reflecting on Angela Merkel as a female chancellor 

For the occasion of the Women20Summit in 2017, Angela Merkel was asked (in the company of Ivanka Trump and the Dutch queen Máxima – not exactly my feminist role models) whether she considered herself a feminist. In the now infamous video, Merkel answered ‘no’, because she did not want to ‘take credit for the achievements and struggles of others’. Although Angela Merkel was the first-ever female chancellor in Germany, it is debatable whether she was also a chancellor for more gender equality. 

Merkel’s chancellorship was undoubtedly very important symbolically. Since 2006, she has been almost continuously chosen by Forbes as the most powerful woman in the world (only surpassed once in 2010 by Michelle Obama). Her colourful blazers stood out amongst the black and blue suits of the other (male) world leaders. Especially during the Trump administration, Merkel began to be seen by many as the ‘leader of the free world’, a rational, calm and composed leader as opposed to the erratic Trump. Noteworthy, since rational is often a quality awarded mostly to men, rather than women. 

Domestically, her legacy remains a lot more mixed. While she did promote first Ursula von der Leyen and later Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer to Minister of Defence, and helped them become President of the European Commission and head of the CDU (albeit only for a short while) respectively, there has not yet been a female minister of the interior, of foreign affairs or finance. Her current cabinet includes only 30% women, as little as before 1989. Especially in the beginnings of her chancellorship, Angela Merkel did little to promote access of women outside of politics to the labour market. She was opposed to quota and certain part time arrangements that would have made a return to work easier for women. Instead, she supported a caring allowance for parents who take care of their toddler at home, which were often women. Not exactly policies thus that were promoting further gender equality. In later years, this would change: the quota was introduced in 2016 (in a limited form only for the boards listed companies), even her own party has voted on having a quota. During the Covid-19 pandemic, Merkel repeatedly highlighted that parity between men and women is important and women should earn the same as men. However, these efforts can be described as too little, too late. During her chancellorship, the so-called gender pay gap, i.e. the difference in average gross hourly earnings, has not decreased significantly. The wealth gap between the sexes has actually increased over the past decade. According to the Federal Statistical Office, only every third manager in Germany was a woman in 2019; this corresponds to an increase of 0.8 percent since 2012. And although single mothers work more often and longer than other mothers, they are threatened by poverty like no other social group. Thus, to answer the question posed to Angela Merkel, whether she is a feminist, I would consider the answer to be a no as well. 

What is maybe most interesting about Angela Merkel is how little her femininity and womanhood seems to play a role in her politics. Especially compared to Annalena Baerbock, the chancellor candidate of the Greens, whose ability to govern is questioned for many reasons, amongst them being a mother of two young children, Merkel to me has never seemed very womanly at all. This is also reflected in the fact that she is often described with very masculine-connotated characteristics: rational, calm, pragmatic, sober. This contrasts starkly to how Angela Merkel was regarded at the beginning of her career: being seen as Helmut Kohl’s ‘girl’, the media mocked her claim to chancellorship, calling her ‘queen of ice’ and various other names. Reading back on this, it strongly resembles how Annalena Baerbock is talked about in the media today – although probably without the many commentaries calling this kind of language misogynistic and sexist. The 1990s and early 2000s were a very different time to now and it was certainly in Angela Merkel’s advantage to be regarded less like a woman and more like the stereotypical image of a chancellor: calling yourself a feminist, asserting that mothers can be good leaders – that was not really the spirit of the time and Merkel would probably have been a lot less successful had she done that. Still, looking back on that, as a young woman interested in politics, I wish she would have done it more. Instead, her chancellorship sometimes feels to me like a cover-up that shockingly little has been achieved for women in Germany in the last fifteen years. 

Nevertheless, there are also things I am thankful for, for example that she has given us the word ‘Bundeskanzlerin’. And that while in 2005, her predecessor Gerhard Schröder found it unthinkable that a woman could be chancellor, there are now many young people having been born in the 2000s and 2010s that cannot imagine not having a female chancellor

 

Lennart (24) reflecting onAngela Merkel in the European context

Angela Merkel’s seemingly eternal chancellorship was marked by profound crises as guiding ideas for any observer of her time in office. This is most apparent from a European perspective. The interconnectedness of these crises left aside, in terms of European politics, Merkel got into office just after the European Constitution failed spectacularly after referenda in France and the Netherlands. To some analysts this moment marked the first sign of Euroscepticism so prevalent in many countries throughout the EU. The enlargement to the east completely tipped the scales and the carefully crafted equilibrium between member states and institutions had to be readjusted.

It was at this time that Merkel was voted into office. As would become clear, she was a great negotiator who was indeed efficient in stabilising Europe, whilst potentially overlooking the long term costs of the stabilisation. If we asked a historian in a 100 years – assuming humanity will still be around with access to recorded history – her most notable legacies in European politics will indubitably be her most controversial decisions: saving the Euro, by imposing a strict austerity regime to the PIIGS countries on the one hand, and opening her border to refugees in 2015, while not consulting European partners and threatening the stability of Schengen in so doing, on the other.

In addition to that, she will likely be seen as a giant rock in the river of European and global politics. As a rock, she was a stable factor among allies with changing faces – three American and four French presidents, five British prime ministers and eight(!) Italians. Considering that, she has been a clear point of reference for observers of politics in Germany, the EU and beyond. However, as a rock, she will also likely leave a legacy of little movement. In 16 years, in terms of European politics, all she achieved in terms of graspable steps of integration is the Treaty of Lisbon, which considering its predecessor (the failed European Constitution) can not even be truly attributed to her political prowess. All of this points to Angela Merkel as being a double-edged sword in European politics: She successfully guided Europe through its many crises, while risking cohesion and contributing to the rise of populism in Southern Europe. She successfully remained a point of stability in a time of conflict, while at the same time resisting any further progress of integration.

It is my opinion that whichever way the European project goes, the future will attach its success or failure to Merkel. Should Europe persist as a political structure in a 100 years from now, it might very well be that Merkel will be known as the key player of the early 21st century. Through her carefully deliberated policies and approaches emphasising harmony between the member states above all else, she allowed the relatively unstable European Union to survive a tumultuous decade between 2008 and 2018. Alternatively, should Europe fail and the project break down for one reason or another, the origins of the disintegration might also be traced back to her. Against the better judgment of many economic experts, Angela Merkel insisted on, and became the face of austerity politics in the Mediterranean. This directly snuffed out the fickle flame of European solidarity and feeling of togetherness that had begun emerging before the financial crisis. Instead Europeans became cautious of each other. Northwestern Europeans considered Mediterranean Europeans lazy and the latter felt subject to a Neocolonial structure, with another country dictating their national politics. This gave rise to populism and protest parties, Germans became public enemy #1 for many Greeks for instance. The migration crisis in 2015 added fuel to the fire of populism and resulted in Brexit and the ensuing disintegration of Europe.

Time will tell, which of the scenarios will be more accurate. But with Merkel leaving, Europe will lose some of its stability. Whether this will give room for integration or disintegration or more ‘Weiter So!’ is certainly an interesting development to observe as the election draws to a close and a new German coalition is formed. 

Conclusion 

In a couple of days, first suggestions can be made as to who will follow up Angela Merkel as the new chancellor of Germany: Armin Laschet (CDU), Olaf Scholz (SPD) or Annalena Baerbock (The Greens). While we believe that change is welcome, there will also be things we will miss about Angela Merkel: her stability, her rationality, her style of political communication, having a female chancellor as a role model (it seems quite unlikely the next chancellor will also be a woman). Angela Merkel has left open what she wants to do next: will she become the ‘old wise woman’ of Europe? A university lecturer (she has 19 honorary doctorates, amongst others from Harvard, John Hopkins and KU Leuven)? Or will she retire somewhere with her husband, go hiking, and cook potato soup and bake plum cake (some of her favorite recipes)? Whatever she decides, we hope to see her back in one way or another.

For now, we would like to say: Tschüss und danke, Mutti!

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