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Busting the Merkel Myth

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BERLIN — In an age of us-versus-them politics, soon-to-be ex-German Chancellor Angela Merkel might be the only prominent international leader the global demos can actually agree on.

From Poland to Peru, clear majorities profess a favorable view of the East German physicist-turned-politician, whose 16-year tenure running Europe’s largest country draws to a close next week.

In contrast to her best-known contemporaries, who span ex-U.S. president George W. Bush to Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi and Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Merkel is as popular abroad as she is at home.

That positive glow has also spread across Germany. The country is “held in the highest esteem we’ve ever measured,” the consultancy Gallup recently reported.

While there’s no disputing Merkel’s global standing, the reasons for it are less clear. Beyond the obvious — she didn’t start any wars or lay claim to other countries’ territory — the origin of her popularity is something of a riddle. 

One common explanation is that Merkel’s seriousness, integrity and no-frills approach to politics offer a powerful antidote to the “big swinging dicks” dominating the global power game.

And yet, the woman-is-the-message logic isn’t the whole story.

Unlike other towering political figures of the recent past, be it Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher or even Barack Obama, Merkel can claim no signature achievement. The historic milestones of her era — German reunification and the deepening of the European Union — occurred long before she came to power. Even the economic renaissance Germany enjoyed during her tenure came as the result of reforms undertaken by her predecessor.

Even so, Merkel’s legions of adherents ascribe all manner of monumental achievement to her, spanning human rights to climate policy. They portray her as a fearless crisis fighter whose steady hand navigated Germany and Europe around the shoals of the Lehman Brothers’ collapse, the Greek debt implosion, the refugee crisis and the pandemic. The result is what might best be described as the Merkel Myth.

“At a moment of global political and social rupture, no leader on the world stage has protected the post-World War II liberal democratic order as fiercely as she did, confronting aggressive authoritarians from Putin to Trump,” Katy Marton, the author of a recent biography of the chancellor, writes with admiration in the preface to the book. “She transformed Germany into the leader of Europe — not just an economic leader but a moral one too — and into an immigrant nation by accepting one million Middle Eastern refugees.”

But did Merkel really “confront” global bullies? Did she transform Germany into Europe’s moral leader? Is Berlin the world’s new Ellis Island?

The less charitable view of Merkel is that she spent 16 years riding on the fumes of Germany’s industrial might without tackling the deeper challenges the country faced either at home or abroad.

Throughout, Merkel opted to pacify instead of solve: When crisis erupted, she did just enough to defang the acute problem, only to sweep the larger issues that triggered the implosion under the rug. This tendency, critics argue, is her legacy on everything from the integration of the eurozone to refugees and transatlantic relations. 

Historians are sure to spend decades debating Merkel’s impact on these (and other) fronts for years to come. But why wait? As Merkel leaves office, we’ve taken a first crack at examining her legacy, weighing popular perceptions against the record, in an attempt to separate fact from fiction, myth from reality.

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Claim: After Trump’s election, Merkel, already seen by many as the world’s most powerful woman, also became “the leader of the free world,” keeping the candle of democracy burning.

Reality: It was left-leaning American and British newspaper columnists who bestowed Merkel with this moniker, one so far-fetched that she herself called it “grotesque and absurd.” Though Merkel was clearly not a fan of Trump, she never lost sight of where Germany’s bread was buttered. Just weeks after Trump’s inauguration, she traveled to Washington, a large delegation in tow, to try to win over the American president and his family.

While that effort ultimately failed, Merkel understood better than most the degree to which Europe’s prosperity and security (and especially Germany’s) depended on America. That explains her decision, in the face of Trump’s steel and aluminum tariffs aimed at German industry, to substantially increase defense spending — and even commit to buy American weaponry. It’s also why, despite his attacks on multilateralism and the “liberal order” she holds dear, Merkel never broke with Trump.     

Bottom line: Merkel wasn’t so much the leader of the free world as she was the mascot of a global establishment that identified her as its last great hope. Whatever power she had was of the soft variety.

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Claim: Merkel kept Europe from falling apart.

Reality: This assertion is rooted in the European debt crisis, originating in Greece in late 2009 and spreading to other countries on the eurozone’s periphery. Preserving the euro, the greatest expression of European integration, was crucial to keep the EU itself from collapsing. That’s why Merkel’s decision to bail out Greece is viewed by her supporters as a seminal moment in EU history.

At best though, that’s only half true. Her government’s initial response was to provide loans to Greece under usurious terms that destabilized its political system and tipped the country into a depression from which it has yet to recover. The economic austerity Europe imposed on Greece at Germany’s insistence was of a scale not seen in Europe since the war, which explains why Merkel’s approval rating there is just 30 percent.

Germans suffered too. After Greece defaulted, German taxpayers were forced to pour much more money into the country than would have been necessary had Merkel listened to reason at the outset.

Merkel also willfully ignored Germany’s historic complicity in Greece’s woes. Despite clear evidence in the years leading up to the introduction of the euro that Greece was unprepared to join the currency union, Germany, under Helmut Kohl, insisted it do so, and looked the other way as Athens cooked the books.

That tortured history notwithstanding, the oversight and bailout infrastructure that grew out of the crisis remain in place and represent a significant leap towards steeling Europe against such shocks. Merkel’s agreement with French President Emmanuel Macron last year to issue common EU debt for the creation of a €750 billion pandemic reconstruction fund is a further step in that direction, one some observers regard as her most significant European legacy.

Bottom line: It’s a mixed picture. Merkel, hemmed in by her center-right party and that ur German phobia Europe would pick its pockets, managed to keep the euro from collapsing — but only just. At the same time, she did next to nothing to resolve the biggest threat to the euro: Economic imbalances between Germany and the rest of the currency area, which remain stubbornly high despite a recent pandemic-induced dent. While there should be no doubt about Merkel’s commitment to European unity, her policies often had unintended consequences (see below).

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Claim: Merkel showed great compassion by admitting more than one million war refugees fleeing the Middle East.

Reality: Just weeks before the influx reached its peak, Merkel came under fire for bringing a 14-year-old Palestinian refugee girl to tears by telling her in a public forum that many asylum seekers would be deported because “politics is hard.”

When Merkel made the decision to keep Germany’s border open to refugees in late summer 2015, she did so based on two assumptions: that the total would number a few hundred thousand and she could cut a deal with other EU countries to share the burden.

She was wrong on both counts. What’s more, Merkel’s attempt to strong-arm other EU countries to accept a refugee quota backfired, fueling far-right parties across the bloc. In Germany, the Alternative for Germany, which that summer had dipped into the low single digits in the polls, won a new lease on life. Authoritarian populists including Hungary’s Viktor Orbán and Poland’s Law and Justice party used public fears of an EU-mandated migration scheme to tighten their hold on power. The division in the EU over refugee policy poisoned the atmosphere in the European Council, making progress on other fronts much more difficult.

In Germany, confidence in Merkel’s course was undermined by the fact that those fleeing Syria’s civil war only accounted for less than one-third of the asylum applications. In 2015, for example, the second-largest group of asylum seekers was from the Balkans.

Merkel responded to the political pressure by agreeing to significantly tighten Germany’s asylum rules, making it much more difficult for refugees arriving in Germany to bring their families. Together with the EU, she also cut a deal with Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to seal off the migration routes in return for billions in cash, an arrangement that survives to this day. Turkey is now home to more than 3.6 million Syrian refugees. About 2 million more are stranded in Lebanon and Jordan.

Bottom line: Merkel’s motives might have been pure, but her refugee policy was more successful in dividing Europe than in alleviating the humanitarian crisis.

* * *

Claim: Merkel was a champion for liberal ideals in the face of authoritarianism, standing up to strongmen from Putin to Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Reality: Merkel packed her foreign policy in gauzy rhetoric about human rights, but at street level, her approach over 16 years was guided by a simple maxim: Germany first.

On Russia, she’s often lauded for supporting the sanctions the international community imposed over Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine. In fact, she was a late convert, resisting intense pressure from the Obama administration. As concerned as Berlin was about Putin’s intentions in Ukraine, Merkel also worried sanctions would have little effect on his behavior while costing German business billions in trade and further provoking Moscow.

What changed her mind in the end was the downing of the Malaysian airliner MH-17, which killed nearly 300 people. Western powers believed Russia was responsible for the attack and the international community needed to come up with a strong response. But even as she allowed the sanctions to go ahead, Merkel let another important Russian initiative — the controversial gas pipeline Nord Stream 2 — continue unabated. The undersea link between Russia and Germany, which critics claim is designed to allow Moscow to circumvent existing routes across Ukraine and deprive the country of lucrative transit fees, was completed this fall.

Merkel’s approach to China has been similar. Even as she criticized the government’s treatment of democracy protesters in Hong Kong and China’s persecution of its Muslim minority, she never let human rights impair the business relationship. During her time in office, she visited the country, Germany’s biggest trading partner, a dozen times.

Her playbook was no different closer to home. In the face of Hungary’s descent into authoritarianism under Orbán, Merkel steadfastly refused to threaten, much less apply any economic pressure, despite Hungary’s dependence on German trade and investment. The same has been true of Poland. 

Bottom line: Merkel talked tough on human rights and democratic ideals, but when push came to shove she did what was best for German business.

* * *

Claim: Merkel is a feminist icon who pursued a progressive agenda, from social issues to the environment.

Reality: For most of her term, Merkel refused to even describe herself as a feminist, arguing that she wasn’t a trailblazer on par with the likes of the French philosopher Simone de Beauvoir. Her record supports that conclusion. She had fewer women in her first cabinet than her predecessor, for example. More broadly, the promotion of women to positions of power in Germany remains more an exception than the rule, whether in business or politics. Of the 40 companies represented in Germany’s blue-chip stock index, only one has a female CEO (and she’s Spanish). Women comprise just 34 percent of the German parliament, placing Germany 42nd in the world in terms of gender parity.

Her record is similarly mixed on other progressive priorities. During a Bundestag vote on gay marriage in 2017, for example, she allowed her Christian Democrats to “vote their conscience.” She did the same — by voting against the measure.

On the environment, Merkel has been celebrated as the “climate chancellor” for prioritizing Germany’s so-called energy transformation (Energiewende), a government plan more than 20 years in the making to shift electricity production from fossil fuels to renewables. It’s been a rocky road. So far, Germany hasn’t even crossed the halfway mark.

Meanwhile, Merkel’s decision in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan to switch off all nuclear power by 2022 has made the country more dependent on coal-fired electricity production than she had hoped. Climate analysts say that without further reforms (which the incoming coalition has promised) Germany has no chance of achieving its climate goals for 2030, much less carbon neutrality by 2045.

Bottom line: Merkel’s unlikely rise and style of leadership have made her a feminist symbol, but her overall record as a progressive is decidedly mixed.



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