Considerations about the legacy of Angela Merkel in Europe and Germany

Andreia Soares e Castro

On the past 12th of March 2021, I had the honor to introduce and moderate the debate about “Europe after Merkel: the legacy of Angela Merkel in Europe and Germany”, an initiative organized by the International Relations Student Department (NERI) of ISCSP. This article gathers the arguments that prove the relevance of this event, highlighting some reflection topics about Angela Merkel’s legacy whether in Europe, as the European Union (EU), or in Germany, as well as envisioning the post-Merkel EU.

The legacy of Merkel

In November 2005, Angela Merkel became the first woman elected federal chancellor (head of government) of Germany. At the time, she was 51 years old. She was already head of the center-right party called Christian Democratic Union (CDU). She occupied this position since 2000 until October 2008, when she announced she would no longer run for head of the party, and neither she would re-apply for the chancellor position in the legislative elections of September 2021.

Angela Merkel has been, since 2005, for almost 16 years, the leader of the German government, having won four consecutive elections. In that way, Merkel is the EU leader with the longest time, and, because of that, the most experienced leader in terms of decision-making procedures at the European level, particularly related to the European Council, an institution that gathers the 27 heads of State and government, with a seat occupied by her.

Hence, we can comprehend the academic discussion about who will now take on the place of Angela Merkel, especially the role of searching for the union of the State-members, achieving new commitments and leading in future crisis. Others argue that the issue is not so much about who will replace her, but about the void of power that her departure will leave in the EU. Within this fact there are unique political capacities, great capacity of leadership, persuasion and creating commitments and agreements between the State-members, demonstrated by Angela Merkel in the different crisis faced by the European project since 2005 (sovereign debt crisis, refugee crisis, «Brexit» crisis and COVID-19 crisis).

The role of Germany in the European project

Merkel’s legacy also evokes the role of Germany in the European project. Well, to speak about this role is to underline the importance of the political context and the history of foreign policy. In fact, history cannot be erased and should not be forgotten, and consequently affects foreign policy all the time:

“History indelibly influences foreign policy.  Consciously or unconsciously, government officials rely on their understanding of the past in seeking to address what is happening today; they seek to render new and complex issues more legible by drawing insights from what has come before (…) One cannot make policy solely on the basis of historical knowledge, of course, but only a fool would ignore what history has to offer”.

Therefore, when we reflect about Merkel’s role and decisions, her leadership, and her capacity of building consensus, reaching agreements and new commitments, the mediation, the crisis management, all of that must be contextualized and interpreted considering a specific political and historical context, that led to the definition of the German foreign policy and its main principles: a sovereign Europe, the transatlantic partnership, the encouragement of peace and security, the promotion of democracy and Human Rights and the commitment to multilateralism.

We must underline here the importance of historical memory in the definition of foreign policy. In this case, Germany’s brutal history still performs, nowadays, a big role in German foreign policy. The Holocaust and the dark Nazi past, as well as the fear of German hegemony, had (and still have today) repercussions in the sense of Germany’s responsibility and the fact that the country never looked for a dominant role in or outside Europe. If this was clear in the post-war, after the reunification, the goal was always to be “a European Germany, not a German Europe”.

Founder State-member of the European project, Germany’s mission in this project has always been, particularly in the last decades, to create a stronger Union, cohesive and profound. While searching for a way to promote its economical and national security interests, Germany is conscious about its particular responsibility in building new commitments with its European neighbors, also while spying on its past. The words of Angela Merkel the day after the British referend, which dictated the United Kingdom decision of leaving the EU, are, in this perspective, enlightening. Merkel said that, because of its history, Germany has a “a particular interest and a particular responsibility” to make European unity a success.

The leaders’ role on the European project

To talk about Merkel’s legacy is to also evoke the importance of the political leaders in general and the national political leaders on the subject of the European project. This happens due the fact that political leadership and European integration go hand in hand. The European project always was and always will be an inspired project guided by the European political elites with a weak involvement from its citizens. 

Democracies need leadership in order to function and implement the necessary and effective acts, especially in times of crisis. Historically, it is well recognized the importance of the founding countries of the European project; the importance of national leaders like Charles de Gaulle, Konrad Adenauer, Margaret Thatcher, François Mitterrand, Helmut Kohl, and many others; or even the leaders of the EU institutions such as the prior president of the European commission, Jacques Delors, or the European parliament, Simone Weil.

It is also necessary to take into consideration the importance and leadership of the Franco-German axis, that has also been a propelling force of the European project being associated to its strength and development. Remember that the reconciliation between the old rivals, France and Germany, was responsible for a “unequaled project, that has been working as a model of peace (…) and the overcoming of the anarchical nature of the relation between both states, changing them for a network of rights and obligations based on the Law, sovereignty sharing plus the searching for collective solutions for common issues”, in 1952.

Later, on January 22nd of 1963, the president of France, Charles de Gaulle, and the German chancellor, Konrad Adenauer, signed in Paris the Treaty of friendship Franco-German (Élysée Treaty). The political duo that followed – Schmidt-Giscard d’Estaing, Kohl-Mitterrand and Schröder-Chirac – used the values of the treaty and transformed both countries on generators of the union in the continent. This friendship was renovated by the Aachen Treaty, back in January 2019, compromising both countries to deepen the cooperation and integration on a notorious sign against the increased nationalism and populism on Europe.

Also, towards the pandemic crisis without precedents, the Franco-German axis has taken, once again, this role on leadership. Recognizing that the way out of the crises, in order to be efficient, it had to be solved with a collective solution, Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron proposed some measures, which included the Recovery plan for Europe.

However, if the Franco-German relations are a generator of European integration, just by themselves, they aren’t sufficient to solve the problems of the EU. There is a need to evolve the rest of the State members. Also, on this topic, and after a marathon of negotiations that took many days, the European council, from July 17th to 21st of 2020, agreed with the recovery plan plus the budget to 2021-2027, being possible to soften opposite interests, without concessions, proving the “enormous resilience and adaptability of the EU. It is indeed true that the european project “has been built gradually, from a necessity, tailored to possible commitments and vicissitudes, whether on an internal plan or an external plan”.

Like the political leaders that have been cited previously, it is clear that Angela Merkel is the leader to the biggest country of the EU in terms of population and economic impact, which made her (naturally) emerge and being designated, for more than 16 years, as the strongest leader on Europe. In fact, Angela Merkel is internationally recognized, and respected, being elected on December 2020, for the 10th time on a row, for the most powerful woman in the world according to the annual rating of the north American magazine, Forbes. She was also elected to the Person of the year, back in 2015, by the north American magazine Time and described as a “leader of a free world”.

 Taking this into consideration, it is also important to highlight some personal characteristics of Angela Merkel, such has her Cristian ethos, daughter of a pastor from the Protestant church; growing on the east side of communist Germany and studying natural sciences and worked with her mentor, chancellor Helmut Kohl.

In these 16 years, the leadership of Angela Merkel as well as her ability to use the political and economic unquestionable force of Germany, plus her personal skills, allowed the EU to overcome: the crisis of the debts that followed the financial crash of the  global market back in 2008-2009; the migratory crisis that followed the civil war in Syria, with the peak in 2015; the complex relations with the United States (Donald Trump) and China; the relations between the east and west Europe as well as the north and south Europe; “Brexit” and a negotiation for a new relation with the UK; the response to the pandemic.

Obviously, Angela Merkel did not do everything by herself. But as a leader of the most influent country of the EU, as well as the time period on the reign, the experience and the international respect that achieved, proved to be indispensable to the continuity to the EU. On a domestical level, the economic situation of Germany, even with the economic crisis back in 2018, was favorable for another election on Merkel’s side, since the country continued to growth in comparison to others. Although her popularity has been suffering some changes in Germany, in these last four mandates, Merkel leaves the throne with a high level of approval, thanks to the way she worked on the pandemic.

Therefore, it is also expected for Merkel to be considered and studied as an example of political leadership on European integration. Her policy of “open doors” in 2015 to give home for a million of refugees from Syria and Iraq; authorizing programs of rescue to the countries of south Europe, braking the “no bail out” rule; the decision back in 2011, after the nuclear accident in Fukushima, in Japan, to transform the energetic German headquarters, investing on renewable energies and eliminating the nuclear energy, plus, more recently, the management of the pandemic, when decided to increase the public spending to soften the pandemic crisis are just a few examples that prove the style of leadership used and political skills of Angela Merkel.

The uncertainty that national elections provoke and their impact on EU

Speaking of EU post-Merkel is reminding that EU integrates States, which governments are democratically elected, by laws and national electoral calendars, but with clear consequences in collective decision making and politique formulation process. In fact, as the numbers one and two, from the tenth article of the European Union Treaty refer:

                “The Union functioning is based on representative democracy” and “the Member- States are represented in European Council for the respective Chef of State or de Government and in Council by their respective Governments, [being] democratically responsible, in front of respective national parliaments and their own citizens”.

Therefore, deals always with choosing deputies, that will bound countries with EU, referring to the importance of which national election, mainly the big countries of EU or when it can be “on top of the table” the growing of populist parties and extreme-right, anti-EU, which represents huge challenges for the European project. Germany elections on 2021’s September, as well as the French presidential elections on 2022, are examples of elections that will hardly impact the EU order.

It is because of this impact, that faced with populism and the fast growing of populist parties and extreme-right in Germany and in other parts of Europe, it is urgent the strengthening of traditional parties, on centre, parties with a long European tradition, so Europe won’t be “in fear” that every election will mark the “European implosion”, not being “acceptable that the normal in democracy, that is elections, represents then the fear of politicians and parties” .

With this, it is from the most importance that the electoral know the difference between the political parties, that continues the effort of building EU, and those who wants to destroy it and return to a nationalist past, to unilateralism and closure. Only this way, the continuation of EU and her multiple benefits, beginning with peace, security, freedom, and fundamental European laws, would be granted.

Separate from the choice of German electoral, who succeeds Merkel will necessarily have to face the same problems and challenges for today´s EU, as well as new ones. Forthwith, the implementation of the Recuperation Plan for Europe, that will work to help the necessary ecological and digital transition; the empowerment of transatlantic relations; the complex relations with Russia and China; the debate concerning the future of Europe and her place in world, with many other topics that remain in the centre of European political agenda. On domestic level, there are authors that defend that Germany should have a more assertive posture in which concerns international life, ending the silence in matters such as defence and security, that can be explained by the past and by the choice of “civil potence” paradigm.

On other hand, it is expectable that the structural decisions would be postponed until the confirmation of electoral choice, as well as national politics and technocrats in Brussels also wants to wait and see who will be on German command. Adds, that on post-election, it is probable existing a period of uncertainty for weeks (or even months) until it is materialized a government by colligation, which means delays on political formulation process on EU. In conclusion, separated from the choice, Germany, the principal force of Euro and the anchor of the European economy, will keep being the central actor of EU, being of interest acting by EU, together with partners and international organizations. It is expected, that working with France on ambit of the French-german partnership, continues working for EU develop. Fundamentally, it is expected that Germany continues linked with the success of the European project, reinforcing an European Germany and not an German Europe.

Be the first to comment on "Considerations about the legacy of Angela Merkel in Europe and Germany"

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.