After 16 years in power, Angela Merkel, outgoing Chancellor of Germany, is bringing the curtain down on a stellar career as a German, European and global leader par excellence. It would have been a fitting sendoff had her conservative party, the Christian Democrats (CDU), been tasked with forming a coalition government after the general elections on 26th September. However, that task will go to the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD). Nonetheless, the failure of Merkel’s CDU to take the lead at the polls should in no way diminish her legacy.
What is Angela Merkel’s legacy? It has been fascinating to hear German and international political observers reflect on Merkel the politician. In her case, I even use the term politician loosely because she is perhaps the least politician of politicians.
As one observer put it, Angela Merkel tranquilized German politics. Another observer noted that Merkel took the politics out of politics. Yet another stated that she depoliticised German public life.
In comparing Merkel to her peers, not only in Germany, but around the world, a commentator suggested that she set the standard for governing with integrity, calm and competence. Merkel was also widely lauded as the world’s crisis manager and a stabilising force in Europe.
To appreciate some aspects of Merkel’s legacy, it is important to recall the context in which she governed. In Europe, Merkel had to navigate tensions over immigration within the European Union (EU), a growing politics of patriotism and Brexit. On the world stage, there was the global financial and economic crisis of 2007/08, tensions between the West and Russia on a myriad of issues, the rise of China and the chaotic years of the Trump presidency.
The story is told of former United States (US) President Barack Obama meeting with Merkel in Berlin in the aftermath of Trump’s electoral victory in November 2016. Fearing what was to come from a Trump presidency, it is reported that President Obama was able to persuade Chancellor Merkel to remain in office beyond the German federal elections in September 2017. Obama is said to have convinced Merkel that it was her duty to carry on the baton of liberal internationalism, free trade and democracy. Obama’s entreaty to Merkel proved to be prophetic because as America’s global standing took a beating under Trump, it was Merkel’s Germany that provided leadership on many global issues as the US disengaged. In this regard, Matt Qvortrup of Coventry University maintains that Merkel’s custodianship of the liberal world order is one of her defining legacies.
It is also important to understand a basic facet of German politics to understand how a leader such as Angela Merkel could have emerged and with staying power at that. German politics revolves around coalition building – a recognition that in order to govern, rivals must work together. In the political history of federal Germany, only once has a single party ruled with a parliamentary majority. Since 2013, Merkel’s CDU was the senior party in a coalition with the SPD which, incidentally, now has the mandate to form a coalition government.
In a sense, Merkel’s legacy is also an ode to German political culture. Here, both Merkel and Germany are examples to the rest of the world that a third way is both possible and viable. In essence, there needs not be a rigid political dichotomy of either this side or the other. Rather, a plurality of ideas and voices can contend at the same table. If I may err in expressing an oxymoron, Merkel and German politics are lessons in democratising democracy itself.
Of course, German political dynamics are much more complex than the picture painted above, and space does not permit as thorough an examination. However, its virtues are quite clear. By comparison, political dysfunction in America is emerging again as US politicians gear up for an all too familiar fight over the country’s debt ceiling, an issue that has global significance. They say that German engineering is the best in the world. Perhaps German democracy is too.
Joel K Richards is a Vincentian national living and working in Europe in the field of international trade and development.