When she steps down as German chancellor after the federal elections on Sunday, Angela Merkel will be leaving as, indisputably, the senior leader in the EU, the G7 and the Western Alliance.
Merkel has been in power continuously since November 2005, a few weeks short of 16 years, having formed governments after the last four elections. In that time there have been five UK prime ministers and four US presidents.
To Germans she is “Mutti”, the mummy of the nation, who has piloted her country through a succession of crises including the euro currency crisis, the migration crisis, the pandemic and this year’s flooding and landslide climate emergencies.
She is a solid and reassuring figure but there is also something enigmatic about this 67-year-old politician.
She is very different from her peers. A woman brought up in communist East Germany and a Berliner, she embodied the new unified Germany which was established in 1990 following the collapse of the Berlin Wall and Soviet domination of Eastern Europe.
As a protégé of the then-chancellor Helmut Kohl, who called her “die mädchen” (the girl), she rose fast in the centre-right Christian Democrat CDU/CSU party during the 1990s, even though it was dominated by Catholic men from the old West Germany and she was a protestant pastor’s daughter.
When Kohl became mired in a corruption scandal, she grabbed her opportunity emerging as chancellor candidate and defeating the incumbent Gerhard Schröder in the 2005 Election.
In practice Merkel built on many of her Social Democrat predecessor’s policies such as welfare reform. She has never been an ideological politician, preferring to let situations develop and only intervening when she has to.
For 12 years of her chancellorship she has governed in a so called “Grand Coalition” made up of the Christian Democrats and their main rivals, the centre left SPD.
Merkel has had two overriding aims: to enhance Germany’s dominant position as the largest economy in Europe and to promote European co-operation and integration. Her critics elsewhere in Europe sometimes argue that these are not compatible.
She has maintained Germany’s “black zero” insistence on a balanced budget and while Germany is the biggest contributor to EU budgets, poorer EU countries always say it should have paid in more.
David Cameron has blamed her for not conceding more when he tried to renegotiate the UK’s terms of membership before the EU referendum which resulted in Brexit. Their relations had never been warm. Shortly after he became Tory leader, he ignored her warning and pulled the Conservative party out of the EU grouping of centre-right parties because it is nominally committed to “ever greater union” of Europe.
Although Germany has joined in sanctions against Russia and China, Merkel, who speaks Russian, has led frequent successful trade missions to both countries. Under her leadership, Germany’s global stance has been balanced, polite, and business like. She has resisted the bolder ambitions for Europe, frequently advocated by France. She has dealt with four French presidents while chancellor.
Her most dramatic act came in 2015 when she opened Germany’s borders to the migrants from the Middle East streaming into Europe. “Wir schaffen das” – We can do it – became her oft-repeated catch phrase.
Germany absorbed more than a million people, mainly from Syria. Five years on, Merkel’s gamble appears to be bedding in. But the arrival of so many newcomers turned Merkel into a hate figure for some Germans. The far-right Alternatif für Deutschland party (AfD) became an established political force, especially in former East Germany.
Merkel had planned to retire at the 2017 election but she decided to stay on once Donald Trump emerged as US president. She remains highly critical of populist political leaders.
In spite of her place on the national and world stages, Angela Merkel has maintained personal privacy, almost to the point of being boring. She still has the same all female team of advisors, wears the same style of clothes, and has even perfected the same hand gestures that she had when she came to power.
She has been married twice. Merkel is her name from her brief first marriage in East Germany. Her current husband, chemistry professor Joachim Sauer, stays out of the public eye, as do his children and grandchildren from a previous marriage. The couple live in an apartment in Berlin’s museum quarter, away from the chancellery.
It is a mark of Merkel’s dominance, and Germany’s political stability, that the two main candidates to succeed her as chancellor from both the CDU/CSU and the SPD each served as ministers in her governments. Germany’s elections are by proportional representation, meaning that no party is likely to have a majority.
But until now German coalition governments have consisted of just two parties. This time fragmenting public opinion means that even another Grand Coalition of CDU/CSU and SPD is likely to fall short of the necessary 50% in parliament. That will mean a multi-party coalition to form the next government. The negotiations and horse trading to agree it could take months. If it does, Merkel will have to postpone her well-earned retirement and stay on as caretaker chancellor.
If she’s still there at Christmas she will have overtaken Kohl as Germany’s longest-serving chancellor.
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