SHARE
COPY LINK

POLITICS

‘Eternal’ chancellor: Germany’s Merkel to hand over power

She was called "the leader of the free world" against authoritarian populists on the march in Europe and the United States, but Angela Merkel is wrapping up a historic 16 years in power with a mixed legacy at home and abroad.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel holds a red rose as she leaves the Defence Ministry during the Grand Tattoo (Grosser Zapfenstreich) in Berlin
German Chancellor Angela Merkel holds a red rose as she leaves the Defence Ministry during the Grand Tattoo (Grosser Zapfenstreich), a ceremonial military send-off for her in Berlin on December 2nd, 2021, as she prepares to step down this week after 16 years in office.  STEFANIE LOOS / AFP

In office so long she was dubbed Germany’s “eternal chancellor”, Merkel, 67, leaves with her popularity so resilient she would likely have won a record fifth term had she sought it.

Instead, Merkel will pass the baton as the first German chancellor to step down entirely by choice, with a whole generation of voters never knowing another person at the top.

Her supporters say she provided steady leadership through countless global crises as a moderate and unifying figure.

Yet critics argue a muddle-through style pegged to the broadest possible consensus lacked the bold vision to prepare Europe and its top economy for the coming decades.

What is certain is that she leaves behind a fractured political landscape, with her own CDU party divided as it struggles to emerge from her long shadow.

Social Democrat Olaf Scholz, who served as her vice chancellor and finance minister, successfully sold himself as the Merkel continuity candidate in the run-up to September’s general election and will now succeed her.

With Scholz due to be officially elected by parliament as chancellor on Wednesday, Merkel will fall just days short of beating Helmut Kohl’s record as Germany’s longest-serving post-war leader.

Do the right thing
The unflappable Merkel has served for many in recent years as a multilateralist counterweight to the big, brash men of global politics, from Donald Trump to Vladimir Putin.

A Pew Research Center poll in September showed large majorities in most democracies around the globe having “confidence in Merkel to do the right thing in world affairs”.

A trained quantum chemist raised behind the Iron Curtain, Merkel was long in sync with her change-averse electorate as a guarantor of stability.

Her major policy shifts reflected the wishes of large German majorities — among them phasing out nuclear power after the 2011 Fukushima disaster — and attracted a broad new coalition of women and urban voters to the once arch-conservative CDU.

However, the last days of her tenure have been marred by a vicious fourth wave of coronavirus, the worst since the start of the pandemic.

READ ALSO: ‘Every vaccine helps’: Merkel implores Germans to get jabbed

‘Austerity queen’
Before the pandemic, her boldest move — keeping open German borders to more than one million asylum seekers in 2015 — seemed set to determine her legacy.

But while many Germans rallied to Merkel’s “We can do it” cry, the move also emboldened an anti-migrant party, Alternative for Germany (AfD), ushering a far-right bloc into parliament for the first time since World War II.

The woman once known as the “climate chancellor” for pushing renewables also faces a mass movement of young activists arguing she has failed to deal with the climate emergency, with Germany not meeting its own emission-reduction commitments.

The incoming coalition has pledged to improve on that legacy and to take a more assertive stance with Russia and China after the commerce-based pragmatism of the Merkel years.

Merkel became Europe’s go-to leader during the eurozone crisis when Berlin championed swingeing spending cuts in return for international bailout loans for debt-mired countries.

Angry protesters dubbed her Europe’s “austerity queen” and caricatured her in Nazi garb, while defenders credit her with holding the currency union together.

Kohl’s ‘girl’ to ‘Mummy’
Merkel, the EU and the G7’s most senior leader, started as a contemporary of George W. Bush, Tony Blair and Jacques Chirac when she became Germany’s youngest and first female chancellor in 2005.

She was born Angela Dorothea Kasner on July 17, 1954 in the port city of Hamburg, the daughter of a Lutheran clergyman and a schoolteacher.

Her father moved the family to a small-town parish in the communist east at a time when tens of thousands were heading the other way.

She excelled in mathematics and Russian, which has helped her maintain dialogue with the other veteran on the world stage, Russia’s Putin, who was a KGB officer in Dresden when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989.

Merkel kept the name of her first husband, whom she married in 1977 and divorced five years later.

After the fall of the wall, Merkel, who was working in a chemistry lab, joined a pro-democracy group that would merge with Kohl’s Christian Democrats.

The Protestant from East Germany whom Kohl nicknamed his “girl” would later be elected leader of a party until then dominated by western Catholic patriarchs.

As she rose to power, party rivals sneeringly called her “Mutti” (Mummy) behind her back but she deftly — some said ruthlessly — eliminated potential challengers.

Although her name has come up on wish lists for key EU or United Nations posts, Merkel has said she will leave politics altogether.

Her four terms in office were “eventful and often very challenging years”, she said at a military ceremonial farewell. “They have challenged me politically and humanly and at the same time, they were also fulfilling.”

Asked on her final trip to Washington in June what she looked forward to most, she replied: “not having to constantly make decisions”.

READ ALSO:

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.

POLITICS

How the EU aims to reform border-free Schengen area

European countries agreed on Thursday to push towards a long-stalled reform of the bloc's migration system, urging tighter control of external borders and better burden-sharing when it comes to asylum-seekers.

How the EU aims to reform border-free Schengen area
European interior ministers met in the northern French city of tourcoing, where president Emmanuel Macron gave a speech. Photo: Yoat Valat/AFP

The EU home affairs commissioner Ylva Johansson, speaking after a meeting of European interior ministers, said she welcomed what she saw as new momentum on the issue.

In a reflection of the deep-rooted divisions on the issue, France’s Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin – whose country holds the rotating EU presidency – said the process would be “gradual”, and welcomed what he said was unanimous backing.

EU countries backed a proposal from French President Emmanuel Macron to create a council guiding policy in the Schengen area, the passport-free zone used by most EU countries and some affiliated nations such as Switzerland and Norway.

Schengen council

Speaking before the meeting, Macron said the “Schengen Council” would evaluate how the area was working but would also take joint decisions and facilitate coordination in times of crisis.

“This council can become the face of a strong, protective Europe that is comfortable with controlling its borders and therefore its destiny,” he said.

The first meeting is scheduled to take place on March 3rd in Brussels.

A statement released after the meeting said: “On this occasion, they will establish a set of indicators allowing for real time evaluation of the situation at our borders, and, with an aim to be able to respond to any difficulty, will continue their discussions on implementing new tools for solidarity at the external borders.”

Step by step

The statement also confirmed EU countries agreed to take a step-by-step approach on plans for reforming the EU’s asylum rules.

“The ministers also discussed the issues of asylum and immigration,” it read.

“They expressed their support for the phased approach, step by step, put forward by the French Presidency to make headway on these complex negotiations.

“On this basis, the Council will work over the coming weeks to define a first step of the reform of the European immigration and asylum system, which will fully respect the balance between the requirements of responsibility and solidarity.”

A planned overhaul of EU migration policy has so far foundered on the refusal of countries such as the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia to accept a sharing out of asylum-seekers across the bloc.

That forces countries on the EU’s outer southern rim – Italy, Greece, Malta and Spain – to take responsibility for handling irregular migrants, many of whom are intent on making their way to Europe’s wealthier northern nations.

France is pushing for member states to commit to reinforcing the EU’s external borders by recording the details of every foreign arrival and improving vetting procedures.

It also wants recalcitrant EU countries to financially help out the ones on the frontline of migration flows if they do not take in asylum-seekers themselves.

Johansson was critical of the fact that, last year, “45,000 irregular arrivals” were not entered into the common Eurodac database containing the fingerprints of migrants and asylum-seekers.

Earlier, German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser suggested her country, France and others could form a “coalition of the willing” to take in asylum-seekers even if no bloc-wide agreement was struck to share them across member states.

She noted that Macron spoke of a dozen countries in that grouping, but added that was probably “very optimistic”.

Luxembourg’s foreign minister, Jean Asselborn, hailed what he said was “a less negative atmosphere” in Thursday’s meeting compared to previous talks.

But he cautioned that “we cannot let a few countries do their EU duty… while others look away”.

France is now working on reconciling positions with the aim of presenting propositions at a March 3rd meeting on European affairs.

SHOW COMMENTS