As Angela Merkel finally steps down, the verdict on her leadership – at least from overseas – appears to be unanimous: she is a safe pair of hands who will be greatly missed. Her departure is a big loss for Europe. But is that right? Many Germans, it seems, are much less favourable about Mutti.
There have been dissenting voices outside Germany to be sure, arguing that her achievements and historical importance have been exaggerated. Her overseas critics point out that she failed to make the most of the considerable authority she acquired and that her interventions in the European Union only made its divisions worse. The inflexibility of Merkel (or rather the misjudgements of David Cameron) could even be seen as a key reason why Brexit took place. But these international critics who condemn Merkel’s leadership are bucking the trend.
Come to Germany, however, and you might feel that you are witnessing the latest example of a prophet lacking honour in her own country. Earlier this week, I was in the crowd on the Old Market Place in the Baltic city of Stralsund for one of Angela Merkel’s last appearances as Chancellor. Stralsund is in the parliamentary constituency she has represented for 30 years. Merkel was there to support Armin Laschet, her party’s candidate for Chancellor. Rain threatened, then poured down, just as Merkel’s arrival was announced. The crowd laughed at the absurdity of it all.
Stralsund illustrated two things. First, that even on her home territory, the constituency she has represented for 30 years, Merkel’s popularity is not what it was. I was at the Stralsund rally 16 years ago when she was campaigning to be Chancellor – successfully, as it turned out. She was a much younger, much less confident performer in those days; but a big crowd turned out to see her, and they showed real enthusiasm for their adopted daughter. A dozen or so local skinheads were a threatening presence, but kept at bay by the police. On the whole, though, it was a warm occasion.
The same could not be said of Tuesday night, although it was essentially Merkel’s farewell to her constituency and her voters. The crowd was nothing like at capacity – though the weather was hardly encouraging. And the cheers were more than matched by derisive whistling right through her own and Laschet’s speech, as well as snide commentary from some of the local people attending. The skinheads of 16 years before had been replaced by a vocal chorus of anti-vaxxers. This was neither a glorious home-coming nor an emotive farewell.
Which may help to explain some of Laschet’s difficulties. He had been expected to glide to victory on the back of Merkel’s personal popularity and achievements. But this is not what has happened. He bears some of the blame himself for the debacle of his campaign, having showing his true colours during Germany’s recent flood disaster.
Aside from personal gaffes though, what also seems to have done for him is the supposed advantage of being the nominee for Merkel’s centre-right Christian Democratic Union. Although Merkel was essentially rushing to his aid by appearing at his rally in Stralsund – she has made very few appearances during the campaign, so this was both a rare honour and an act of some desperation – her assistance in the final stages is unlikely to help much.
As for his chief opponent, the Social-Democrat, Olaf Scholz, was it a big advantage that he was not Merkel’s designated successor? Although he is deputy Chancellor and Finance Minister, he has been able to campaign as his own man. This probably helped, even if in the early stages of the campaign he was still keen to present himself as the most Merkel-like of the contenders.
As the election now reaches its final stages, a wholly positive view of Merkel and her legacy looks like a conceit, and a misperception, on the part of Germany’s elite. In the grassroots, Merkel is far less well thought of. In a way, after being in power for 16 years, there is a sense in which she is now almost taken for granted. Many Germans may not appreciate what seems to others their good fortune in having had a Chancellor who has appeared competent, up to the job, and equal to the crises that have come her way: from the financial crisis of 2007-8 that threatened the euro, to the migrant crisis of 2015, to the Covid pandemic of today.
Merkel’s major achievement at home, it seems, is keeping the show on the road and preserving for the most part Germany’s enviable living standards. There have been hiccups, of course: after the first flush of nationwide euphoria, her generosity towards migrants has not played so well at home. Yet in many other respects, Merkel’s success has been her stabilising influence: German savers may not be aware of her contribution to rescuing the euro, which is partly the point. They would have been all too aware if it had failed.
And when it came to the pandemic, cool, calm leadership from a former research scientist might have seemed a huge asset to those in other countries – that is, most countries – without such a leader, but for many Germans it was the order of the day. They were far more exercised by the relative slowness of the vaccine roll-out, not least because the Pfizer vaccine – the first vaccine to gain regulatory approval – was developed by two German scientists of a migrant background.
The gulf between ordinary German opinion of Merkel, as her long Chancellorship draws to an end, and the laudatory view that prevails abroad partly reflects differences between the elite and the rest. Partly, too, though, it reflects different experiences. Where foreigners see calm leadership, a collaborative approach, few foreign policy mistakes (such as invading, then abandoning, other people’s countries), Germans see a neglected infrastructure, a variable health service, a lagging tech sector, rising energy prices and an enthusiasm for green policies that sometimes seems more rhetorical than real. Reasonably or not, some of her constituents I talked to also felt that the world had taken her attention away from them.
So there should be no real mystery about why there is such a divergence of views on Merkel. Perhaps the reality is that Merkel was no prophet, either in her own country abroad, and that her preoccupation with the here and now may be seen as both her greatest merit and her greatest fault.
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