To her fans, she is ‘Mutti Merkel’; to her opponents, she is a ‘Volksverräter’, an enemy of the people. Abroad she is revered as the most powerful woman in the world; within her own party, she is seen as a leader who lacks ‘vision’. Angela Merkel’s 15-year tenure as Chancellor of Germany will come to an end in 2021, leaving a significant vacuum within German and European politics.
Governed by her pragmatism, Merkel is an out and out centrist, acquiring support for her policies through consensus-building. It is an interesting strategy that, in light of her 15-year tenure, has mostly proved its worth – but was only ever going to last so long. Make no mistake: it is Merkel’s practical, level-headed approach which many people, German voters included, appreciate, as evidenced by a bounce-back in approval ratings following her stoic handling of the current coronavirus pandemic. Indeed, German broadcaster ARD estimates that her personal approval rating has never dropped below 46%.
The flipside of pragmatic centrism is, of course, that it risks upsetting both sides: both are satisfied in the most basic sense, but neither is jubilant, a feeling that reduces with distance from the political centre. In Merkel’s case, this has translated into disenchantment of those on the fringes of politics and society, a political vacuum which has been filled by the right-wing extremist party, the AfD. To deal with this threat from the extremes, Merkel has– very reluctantly – revised her political credo, whereby consensus has increasingly come to represent compromise.
On the international stage, Merkel has become a well-respected not to mention powerful figure, proving time and time again that she can keep a cool head in times of crisis. This was best demonstrated in her skilful negotiation of the 2011 eurozone debt crisis. As the de facto leader of the EU, she has proven that she is not a figure to be trifled with, maintaining a firm stance against Turkey’s ascension to the EU and Russian activity in Ukraine.
Whilst her global reputation has gone from strength to strength over the past 15 years, the same cannot be said for her domestic reputation. In becoming the most powerful woman in Europe, there is a sense that Merkel has forgotten about her own country, preferring to strengthen Germany through rather than alongside building a ‘stronger Europe’. Policies that are admired abroad like Germany’s energy transition (Energiewende) and ‘open door’ policy to migration have been distinctly less popular at home due to their socio-economic impact. In particular, the 2015 migrant crisis stands out as the defining moment of her political career. It signified international acceptance of her leadership of the EU whilst also marking the beginning of her downfall at home.
The Merkel era will undoubtedly be remembered – for better or for worse – for its stability in times of crisis, be they economic, social or political. It is a quality that is all too often criticised by contemporaries and taken for granted but will doubtless be sorely missed in today’s increasingly tumultuous political climate. As Merkel’s former heir apparent, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, discovered, it takes considerable skill to keep a party under control, maintain a working coalition government and simultaneously keep an increasingly disparate EU functioning. For 15 years, German and European politics has been dominated by one woman. It is clear that Merkel’s successor has extremely large shoes to fill.