When Angela Merkel barely scraped her way into office as Germany’s chancellor in 2005, Europe’s largest economy was stalled, with unemployment at a postwar high and Germans fearful that their industrial powerhouse was fading amid growing global competition.
Ms. Merkel pledged to restore German pride and to adopt the painful changes required by globalization, while decrying her nation’s recent caution. “We lack the courage to take even the smallest step unless we can calculate its effect into the smallest detail,” Ms. Merkel lamented at the time. “Germany must stop being content with being mediocre.” A more dynamic Germany, she said, would in turn revitalize the European Union, which was losing sway to rising powers in Asia and elsewhere.
Sixteen years later, with elections in Germany this weekend, Ms. Merkel is about to bow out as one of the longest-serving and most popular Western leaders. During her tenure, she has worked with eight Italian premiers, five British prime ministers and four French and American presidents. Her personal approval rating is near 80%, and polls show that Germany is more admired today both at home and abroad than it was when she was first elected.
Yet Ms. Merkel leaves in her wake a weakened Europe, a region whose aspirations to act as a third superpower have come to seem ever more unrealistic. When she became chancellor in 2005, the EU was at a high point: It had adopted the euro, which was meant to rival the dollar as a global currency, and had just expanded by absorbing former members of the Soviet bloc. Today’s EU, by contrast, is geographically and economically diminished. Having lost the U.K. because of Brexit, it faces deep political and cultural divisions, lags behind in the global race for innovation and technology and is increasingly squeezed by the mounting U.S.-China strategic rivalry. Europe has endured thanks in part to Ms. Merkel’s pragmatic stewardship, but it has been battered by crises during her entire time in office.
Previous German chancellors acted as a force for integration in an expanding Europe. Ms. Merkel, by contrast, became the passive administrator of an increasingly subdued bloc, too busy keeping itself together to reverse its relative decline. “There is no poignant epitaph but a very long eulogy for Angela Merkel’s political career,” said Herfried Münkler, a German political scientist and historian who has advised her. “And it certainly can be summarized…as permanent crisis management.”
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But Ms. Merkel’s legacy isn’t just a function of the era over which she has presided. It also reflects in large measure the chancellor’s personality and the choices she has made. Despite her rhetoric before taking office, her governing style has been cautious and meticulous, leading her to hedge when faced with uncertainty. Her name became a new German verb: to merkeln, meaning to postpone decisions until they become unavoidable. Early in her career, Ms. Merkel also learned the political benefits of yielding to public opinion, which has prompted her, among other things, to put German interests above the European project more than most of her predecessors did.
“Her great achievement has been to keep the show on the road and keep the EU together, and that can’t possibly be underestimated,” said Timothy Garton Ash, a historian and author of several books on Germany. “But what she hasn’t done is to shape its policy in any decisive new way,”
Ms. Merkel has said that her deliberateness partly derives from her training as a scientist—she has a doctorate in physical chemistry—which taught her to weigh all evidence before making decisions. Prof. Münkler recounted that when they had conversations about European history and politics, she made notes that looked like engineer’s circuit diagrams aimed at turning talking points into policy conclusions. Another determining factor in her caution: her background growing up in the communist dictatorship of the former East Germany, where opinions were best kept private.
Signs of the sober, risk-averse approach that would later become Ms. Merkel’s trademark are not hard to find in her personal history. On the evening that the Berlin Wall collapsed and thousands of her dazzled countrymen crossed into the West, she went to the sauna as usual. When she crossed into the West hours later, she only ventured into the area around the border. There, she later recounted, she ended up in the house of a welcoming West German family. As ecstatic crowds of easterners moved onward to party in the center of the old West Berlin, Ms. Merkel returned home behind the wall. “I had to get up early the next day. And I had enough of the company of strangers,” Ms. Merkel said later. “I had gone quite far for my standards.”
As a steward of Europe, her cautious, soft-spoken qualities distinguished her from a growing cadre of populist leaders. Ms. Merkel steered negotiations toward fair compromise and made sure that smaller nations were not marginalized, said Jean-Claude Juncker, former chief executive of the EU and a veteran of its marathon summits “Her great talent was to be able to listen to everyone, including those she didn’t like listening to,” Mr. Juncker said. “She was always able to consider every option.”
But that consensual, incremental style also held her back from the kind of bold moves she had once praised. In 2015, for instance, as masses of asylum seekers from Asia, Africa and the Middle East converged on Europe, Ms. Merkel at first appeared paralyzed. Her government briefly considered closing the borders but hesitated over legal concerns and fear that border police might have to use violence to keep people out. More than a half million people would subsequently enter the country during the remainder of that year. Ms. Merkel, an immigration skeptic before she was elected chancellor, defended the more open policy on humanitarian grounds, famously saying, “We will manage it.” Initially, Germans were welcoming, greeting the newcomers with so much food and toys that some of the donations had to be returned.
But disturbances on New Year’s Eve, when recently arrived asylum seekers sexually assaulted and robbed revelers in Cologne, as well as a string of terror attacks, helped to turn public opinion against the newcomers. Ms. Merkel eventually made a U-turn, accepting the closing of borders across Eastern Europe and engineering an agreement with Turkey that would keep Europe-bound asylum seekers on its soil.
Her sensitivity to changes in public opinion has repeatedly led her to reverse past positions. Acutely aware of the need for Europe to reform and innovate, she worried about rising spending for the continent’s generous welfare systems—money that instead might have been funneled into productive investments, such as a modern broadband infrastructure. But she was resigned to the fact that the public wouldn’t support the painful measures required to change things. “She accepted that one can’t govern against the majority in a democracy, and therefore a certain melancholy has accompanied Merkel’s politics,” Prof. Münkler said.
Once a staunch promoter of nuclear plants, as chancellor she decided to cut short the life of Germany’s reactors after the 2011 Fukushima disaster because polls showed that Germans had become terrified by the technology. The decision has left Germany with some of the world’s highest electricity prices, its industries starved for energy.
Signs of the sober, risk-averse approach that would become Ms. Merkel’s trademark are not hard to find in her personal history.
Ms. Merkel’s leadership in Europe was likewise marked by reversals driven by domestic political concerns. Some critics say that one reason she couldn’t offer Europe more strategic leadership was because core German interests were sometimes at loggerheads with those of the EU. She backed the controversial Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline between Germany and Russia despite sustained opposition from many EU members. And while she partly inspired the EU’s ambitious agenda to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions, her effort to cushion the blow for Germany’s auto industry and her decision to abandon nuclear power meant that Germany was unable to deliver on its own emission reduction targets; nearly half of its power comes from fossil fuels.
“The principle of German foreign policy under Merkel has been ‘Germany First,’ shaped by national-egoistic trade interest: We buy Russian gas and sell cars to China without excessive concern for the strategic interests of the trans-Atlantic community,” said Andreas Rödder, a German historian at Johns Hopkins University.
Ms. Merkel never tired of warning about the EU’s relative technological decline, often citing the fact that Apple Inc. had a bigger market capitalization than Germany’s 30 biggest companies combined, including fabled car makers such as Volkswagen AG . Yet she also championed the German car makers and lobbied to water down EU car emission reduction plans in 2013, before Volkswagen and then other companies were exposed for cheating on car emissions performance. As she retires, the EU still finds itself with few global tech players, especially in strategic industries such as artificial intelligence and battery production.
At the same time, Ms. Merkel’s concern for German industrial interests prevented her from resisting troubling trends in the EU. Germany’s large investments in Hungary, for instance, kept her from criticizing the authoritarianism of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. Her inaction emboldened the self-declared proponent of “illiberal” democracy, said Paul Lendvai, a Hungarian-born political analyst: “She enabled Orban by not using her leverage over him.”
Unlike her mentor, former chancellor Helmut Kohl, Ms. Merkel was lukewarm at heart about Europe and its place in the world, according to Romano Prodi, a former European Commission president and Italian premier and an ally of the chancellor. Mr. Kohl once told Mr. Prodi that he was so determined to push through adoption of the euro despite headwinds at home because, he said, “My brother died in the war, and that’s why I want the euro—to bond Europe together.” According to Mr. Prodi, Ms. Merkel has no such visceral sense of Europe’s need to integrate and no vision for elevating the continent’s role.
Ms. Merkel articulated no grand vision for Germany either, offering instead a pragmatic—even prosaic—view of the nation. When asked what she felt at the mention of Germany, Ms. Merkel once said that she thought of “well-made windows.” No other country made them so sturdy and airtight, she said.
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Throughout the Eurozone’s sovereign debt crisis of a decade ago, Ms. Merkel was guided by domestic political considerations, according to several leaders who worked with her at the time. When growing fear of a default by some eurozone members seized capital markets and brought the bloc close to a breakup, she initially dithered, rejecting the bold rescue steps favored by many economists and other governments; she worried that they would expose Germany to financial liabilities and encourage irresponsible spending in southern Europe in the future. “One can’t live beyond one’s means for long,” Ms. Merkel said. She favored obligations for sovereign bond investors that spooked markets even more, triggering a capital flight in late 2011 and threatening the solvency of the whole of southern Europe. Her early indecision amplified the problem and increased the eventual cost of the rescue, according to many economists.
Ms. Merkel insisted on bureaucratic management, such as including the International Monetary Fund in handling the eurozone crisis, and a compromise was ultimately reached: Germany endorsed the creation of a permanent rescue fund for eurozone nations and stayed out of the way as the European Central Bank began aggressively easing monetary policy. “She was very hesitant, but in the end she opted for the European solution,” said Mr. Juncker. “Maybe her hesitance sometimes even helped Europe in a way. As a scientist, she demanded bulletproof procedures and forced all of us to work harder.”
Europe was not at the center of her deliberations at the time, said Jean-Marc Ayrault, a former prime minister of France. “The most important thing for Merkel is domestic politics and German democracy. This is not a fault. It’s her political identity to be immersed in the consensual nature of German democracy,” Mr. Ayrault said. But he added, “When it came to rescuing Europe, she delivered in the end.”
Ms. Merkel told fellow leaders that she was forced to tread carefully because she was concerned that using German wealth to prop up Greece and other nations could usher in a revival of the far right in Germany. But the eurozone crisis and the refugee crisis of 2015, in which Ms. Merkel played a central role, were key factors in subsequent political developments that have undermined the European project. They shook Europeans’ trust in their governments and boosted populist protest parties across the region. In Britain, Nigel Farage, one of the architects of Brexit, said that footage of migrants flooding into Germany tipped the scale during the 2016 referendum on whether the U.K. should leave the EU. In Italy, right-wing populists fueled by anxiety over migration now command a large majority in the polls, and in Germany a far-right party is the first to hold seats in the federal parliament since World War II.
Still, as Ms. Merkel leaves the political stage, even leaders who have been critical of her are quick to acknowledge the value of her pragmatism. Praising the departing chancellor, the environmentalist Annalena Baerbock of the center-left Green Party recently said in parliament, “Very, very many people in this country are grateful to you for keeping Europe together in the crises of the last 16 years.”
Within Germany, says Prof. Garton Ash, there is no doubt that Ms. Merkel’s long tenure will be remembered fondly for her moderation, reasonableness and consensus-building. But in Europe, he said, the judgment of history will depend on what happens next—whether the bloc overcomes its woes or continues the slide that began on her watch. “It’s not the sins of commission, it’s the sins of omission,” he said. “The problem with her record is what she didn’t do rather than what she did do.”