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Angela Merkel’s reign of failure She is proof longevity doesn't lead to success

Thanks for Brexit (Steffi Loos/Getty Images)


September 9, 2021   6 mins

After 16 years, Angela Merkel’s long reign as German Chancellor is drawing to a close. So prepare yourself, preferably with a sick bag, because the hagiographies will be nauseating. 

Just as Boris Johnson represents everything that British remainers hate about Britain, Angela Merkel embodies everything they love about Germany — the country they regard as the grown-up in the room.

Her fans do have half-a-point. Merkel is the epitome of Germany’s role in the world. But as we’ll see, that’s not something to be proud of. Indeed, the closer you look at her record, the less there is to show for it. 

There’s no denying her staying-power. When she first became Chancellor, in 2005, her opposite numbers in Britain and America were Tony Blair and George W Bush. She certainly hasn’t lacked for time.

Or look at it this way: just one Chancellor (Gerhard Schröder) separates Merkel’s Chancellorship from that of her mentor, Helmut Kohl. However, there were five Prime Ministers between Boris Johnson and Kohl’s contemporary, Margaret Thatcher (and five Presidents between Joe Biden and Ronnie Reagan). Is it any wonder that Germany’s leaders look down upon their allies with a certain Teutonic superiority?

With so many terms as Chancellor one might assume Merkel to be a political genius — an election-winning machine in the mould of a Blair or Thatcher. But that’s not the case. In fact, she’s bungled one election after another. 

The first one was 2002. As leader of the Christian Democrats (CDU), Merkel should have been the centre-Right’s candidate for Chancellor. But instead she was out-manoeuvred by Edmund Stoiber — the leader of the CSU (the CDU’s Bavarian sister party).

She had to wait until 2005 to get her first shot at the top job — and she very nearly blew it. A lead in the polls was lost after loose talk about introducing a flat tax. Instead of increasing her party’s vote share as expected, she reduced it. She was only saved by the fact that the incumbent Chancellor — Schröder — lost more votes that she did. 

It was a shattering experience for Merkel — but it taught her two things: Firstly, never to be interesting again. And, secondly, that she didn’t have to succeed in order to win, she just had to do less worse than her rivals. 

And so she became Chancellor — but only by forming a “Grand Coalition” with the Social Democrats. At the next election in 2009, her vote share went down again. Luckily for her, her coalition partners (and main electoral opponents) were pulverised. Moving swiftly on, she swapped them for a new coalition partner — the Free Democrats.

Her second term in office was dominated by the Eurozone crisis. That was when the rest of the EU realised who was in charge. The so-called ‘PIIGS’ — Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece and Spain — were forced into austerity measures that made George Osborne’s budgets look positively Keynesian.

Populist protest movements began to stir all over Europe. But Merkel didn’t mind. Her hardline policies were popular at home and at the next election in 2013, she scored her one clear victory — the highest share of the vote for the CDU since the days of Kohl. Yet, as per usual, her allies didn’t fare so well. In fact, the Free Democrats crashed out of the Bundestag altogether.

Shortly before he became Prime Minister, David Cameron asked Angela Merkel what it was like to lead a coalition. “The little party always gets smashed”, she observed through crocodile tears. In 2013, Merkel needed a new little party, having broken the old one. In practice, that meant another Grand Coalition with Social Democrats.

And so we come to Merkel’s calamitous third term in office — and in particular her chaotic mishandling of the refugee crisis. The Syrian civil war wasn’t her fault, of course. Nor is there anything wrong with helping refugees. However, suddenly flinging open Germany’s borders (and then slamming them shut again) was entirely the wrong way of going about it. She destabilised politics at home and abroad — while providing a massive encouragement to the people smugglers.

In the 2017 German general election, the CSU was punished with its worst result since the 1950s and the Social Democrats with their worst result since the 1930s. They still had enough seats to cobble together a not-so-Grand Coalition, but the populist AfD was left as the largest opposition party.

So, with the exception of 2013, Merkel has never received a ringing endorsement from the German electorate. She’s just been in the best position to pick up the pieces of her own political failures.

Then again, holding together a broken system is what she’s all about. That’s not just in Germany, but across Europe — where the system in question is the single currency.

German leaders — and Merkel is no exception — love to preach fiscal responsibility. They’re in a strong position to do so: Germany’s record of balanced budgets compares well to the spiralling debts of other nations. 

The bit that’s left unsaid, however, is that German rectitude is built upon a mercantilist scam of continental proportions. The Eurozone is a distorting mirror whose effect is to make German exports permanently cheaper than they should be and those of weaker economies more expensive. Add to that the trade barriers erected around the Single Market (but removed within it) and German exporters can hardly fail.

The trade imbalance forces Germany’s partners into debt — and thus dependency upon the European Central Bank, conveniently headquartered in Frankfurt. Right how, the deficits of countries like Italy and Spain are entirely financed by ECB bond purchases — which means they must do as they’re told. 

Merkel did not design the Eurozone. She inherited the system from her predecessors. Nevertheless, during her Chancellorship, Germany has exploited its position to reach a level of economic and political dominance that is, if not unprecedented, unusual for having been achieved through peaceful means.  

Very few German politicians are willing to say any of this out loud. One of them is Sahra Wagenknecht, an outlier even within her own Left Party. She has accused her country of “abusing a highly dangerous, half-hegemonic position.”

“Half-hegemonic” is exactly right. Germany dominates, but it doesn’t lead. Under Merkel, Germany’s power has been used not for reform but to embed the status quo — no matter how difficult a position this places her friends in. 

She is, for instance, directly responsible for Brexit. By refusing to give David Cameron any concession on free movement of people across borders she doomed the Remain campaign to defeat. For her, the theoretical framework of the “four freedoms” was more important than the real world difficulties of an English-speaking nation that was wide open to the impact of uncontrolled immigration. 

Another failure of leadership is Europe’s security. When Donald Trump was elected President, the New York Times breathlessly proclaimed Merkel the “the liberal’s West’s last defender”. Really? Her and whose army? Certainly not the sub-par German military, nor the fabled European Army that Merkel paid lip service to but never had any intention of paying for. Meanwhile Trump has come and gone, and America is still defending Europe’s borders.

Germany’s main contribution to Europe’s security during the Merkel years has been to undermine it. On the one hand Germany joins in with ritual denunciations of Russian and Chinese aggression, but on the other enthusiastically pursues lucrative trading relationships with both regimes. 

There’s no better example of this than the Nord Stream gas pipeline that runs from Russia to Germany via the Baltic Sea. The route is specifically chosen to bypass Russia’s vulnerable neighbours, thus weakening their economic and strategic positions at a time of growing tension. Merkel wasn’t responsible for the first of these pipelines, but it was her government that doubled down with Nord Stream 2, in the face of bitter opposition from Poland, Slovakia and Ukraine. 

Germany wouldn’t be so dependent on Russian fossil fuel imports if it had made more progress on decarbonising its economy. For a while this was a policy area on which Germany did, for once, take the lead. Merkel went out of her way to identify herself with the issue, becoming known as the Klimatkanzlerin (“Climate Chancellor”). 

But that went out the window when, in the wake of the Fukushima disaster, she caved in to a crazy plan to phase out Germany’s existing nuclear power stations. Not even Japan, where the disaster actually happened, went that far. By prioritising the end of nuclear over the end of coal, Germany will continue spewing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere until 2038. 

It is now the United Kingdom that leads the world’s biggest economies on this issue — and Boris Johnson who’ll preside over the closure of the last British coal-fired power station in just two years time. 

Aside from global warming, Merkel has bequeathed two final gifts to the world. The first is Ursula von der Leyen — the deeply unimpressive defence minister who Merkel installed as President of European Commission. It was a foolish appointment, as made clear in the shambles of the vaccine procurement programme.

Merkel’s other parting shot is Armin Laschet, her chosen successor as leader of the CDU and candidate for Chancellor. This is a man is so uninspiring that German voters have turned to the dying Social Democrats in desperation. 

The CDU, meanwhile, is set to get its worst ever result — a verdict not just on Herr Laschet, but on 16 years of Angela Merkel. 


Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.

peterfranklin_

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Katharine Eyre
KE
Katharine Eyre
2 years ago

I think calling Merkel’s time in office a “reign of failure” is to slightly over-egg the pudding, but what I can say without any reservation is that Angela Merkel is one of the most overrated politicians of all time. At least in Europe. And I think I can safely say that this opinion is one that I share with a great many Germans. “The best argument for limiting the Chancellor’s tenure to two terms”, “the worst Chancellor Germany has ever had”, and “the most overrated Angela of all time” are just a couple of the comments I’ve seen in the past weeks in German media. Not exactly a glowing review.
Merkel is far, far more popular and enjoys more respect abroad than at home. Her staying power and longevity has created continuity and a level of stability that a lot of people (at home and abroad) treasure. A bit like the Queen. Except that Merkel had it within her power to make much more impactful decisions than the British monarch…and unfortunately a lot of them were the wrong ones. Or were postponed for so long that damage was done.
Germany has enjoyed enormous benefits from the euro, true. However – whenever some bill has to be paid in the EU then Germany is usually the one to step up to the plate first – so there’s some kind of equaliser for the euro advantages. However, this, in turn, generates frustration among the population who already have to shoulder some of the highest rates of tax in Europe (if not the world), face ever-rising living costs – and then have to watch their money being spent elsewhere. Many feel that Merkel has been the architect of a kind of politics that serves everyone except people in Germany.
Germans will also have to face up to the fact that, with the euro, having enjoyed “eine doppelte Portion, gratis” (“a double portion, for free”, i.e. a disproportionate/unfair advantage) has come with a creeping price. My understanding of the Target2 claims is that the imbalance which has been created within the system has now trapped Germany within it. The only way forward is a full fiscal union (and the transfer union that goes with it).

Last edited 2 years ago by Katharine Eyre
John Barclay
OB
John Barclay
2 years ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

Full fiscal union was always the plan.

Katharine Eyre
KE
Katharine Eyre
2 years ago
Reply to  John Barclay

Yes, although I think previously, there has always been some kind of unspoken assumption that there was still a way to reverse out of the project. That avenue is all but closed off – if not in fact, then for all practical purposes as it would just cause so much damage.

Michael James
MJ
Michael James
2 years ago
Reply to  John Barclay

Full fiscal union is the French (and European Commission) plan, so that Germany can be made to subsidise the debts of the rest of the European Union for ever. Germany itself wants to return to the original Maastricht plan to enforce budget balance on all eurozone members so that such subsidies are unnecessary. But in practice it’s had to allow the European Central Bank to pay for the debts of Italy etc. with printed money so that those countries don’t drop out of the eurozone. Faced with such dilemmas you wonder what scope is left for Germany to run a coherent national policy or for its leaders to ‘succeed’. But isn’t that what ‘ever closer union’ is supposed to mean?

Last edited 2 years ago by Michael James
Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
2 years ago
Reply to  John Barclay

Would there be budgetary union too? How would that be managed?

Christopher Barclay
CB
Christopher Barclay
2 years ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

Germany’s political stability for good or bad is down to the electoral system that virtually denies any party a majority and to the willingness of the SDP and CDU/CSU to form coalitions. British politics would be very different if there was a serious possibility of the Tories and Labour forming coalitions.

Mark Gourley
MG
Mark Gourley
2 years ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

Very true. In terms of longevity Frau Markel may be comparable with our dear Queen, but in all other respects she is more like Theresa May.

Bruno Lucy
BL
Bruno Lucy
2 years ago

At long last……some dares speaking about the elephant that has been squatting the room for 16 years !!!!
How this woman could be branded the most powerful woman in the world is just baffling. The Germans love her for 2 reasons.
1/ She’s done what they love best : change nothing
2/ The Eurozone is a distorting mirror whose effect is to make German exports permanently cheaper than they should be and those of weaker economies more expensive. Add to that the trade barriers erected around the Single Market (but removed within it) and German exporters can hardly fail. ( direct quote from this article )
Has anyone forgotten how she and Wolfgang Schäuble were ready to throw the Greeks out of the eurozone in 2008 ? How is taking the brunt of the ongoing refugee crisis ? The Greeks…..!!! Had she had her way on this one, this would have unleashed a catastrophe of mammoth proportions.
The refugee crisis was just an opportunistic move set to provide cheap labour in a country with an ageing population. You can drive through villages in the Black Forest where precision industries are quartered to see the posters advertising “Atzubis” positions ……or apprentices wanted.
Remember New Year’s in Cologne ?? That’s when Germans finally started to smell the coffee. How many people died due to attacks perpetrated by so called refugees ?
Die Welt published a very good editorial last Tuesday about the 2015 terrorist attack in Paris where 130 people where shot…….130 !!! Quite a few of the perpetrators came through the open borders thanks to Frau Merkel and watching the french news this morning and hearing what a lawyer was referring to as the Tchernobyl effect ( people dying long after the attack……..relatives suddenly dying of cancer etc….) made my blood boil.
Wir shaffen das !!
One of the coming presidential run candidate here in France, Valerie Pecresse is selling her campaign saying “ I am a mix of Margareth Thatcher and Angela Merkel”
HELP !!!

Last edited 2 years ago by Bruno Lucy
Jorge Espinha
Jorge Espinha
2 years ago
Reply to  Bruno Lucy

Ayaan Hirsi Ali describes in her book “Prey” how the women living in Germany saw their rights and freedoms diminished thanks to the presence of the “rapefugees”

Jorge Espinha
JE
Jorge Espinha
2 years ago

I’m glad someone sees Frau Merkel for what she is. The worst German Chancellor since the Austrian with the ridiculous moustache.

Peter LR
PL
Peter LR
2 years ago

Yes, closing down nuclear power was one of her most egregious acts. Since when are there tsunamis in the Baltic? It gives Germany yet more excuses to take economic advantage over those countries going to zero coal.

Jorge Espinha
Jorge Espinha
2 years ago

I just want to add one thing. I’m a citizen of the “P” in pigs. Germany had nothing to do with our troubles. From the very beginning we, in Portugal went for the flashy “big public works” policy instead of preparing the country for a transition into a modern economy. The money from Europe was used to buy election victories. We are now one of the countries in the world with more km of highway per capita. When the crisis hit us we were in stagnation for 20 years. And all through this process, we had people inside our country warning us this wasn’t the way to go. I believe the same happened in Spain and Greece (Italy is odd, it combines first-rate industry with a byzantine political system). So, Germany probably imposed a financial straight jacket on the rest of the Union but it isn’t their fault that we are dysfunctional

Jon Redman
HJ
Jon Redman
2 years ago

I can’t explain why, but I always feel as though Angela would…bleed acid.
Can anyone confirm or deny?

furma371
LW
furma371
2 years ago

Merkel is also the “Kanzlerin” who failed to invest in infrastructures: bridges, roads, rails and schools. Those 16 years of stability have some bitter material and social consequences for the successor. So that Germany that first elected Angela Merkel is no more. Merkel definitely contributed to change the World. I am not sure it was for the better.

Last edited 2 years ago by furma371
stefan filipkiewicz
SF
stefan filipkiewicz
2 years ago

There is no doubt that Angela’s legacy is mixed; anyone who has been in power for 16 years will have had pluses and minuses.
I’m a bit disappointed in the article as much of it is context-free.
1) Brexit: Cannot just be dumped on Merkel. Cameron was always lukewarm over Europe. He was the one who withdrew the Conservatives from the centrist coalition in the European Parliament. When he went to Europe pre-referendum, I believe he was over cocky that he would win i.e. no sense of urgency and no concrete proposals. He could easily have requested a pause in freedom of movement, and that would have been allowed. The other European leaders also need to accept responsibility.
And the UK remain campaign was rubbish.
2) Refugees: Good point from Richard. Remember that Germany accepted 12M refugees at the end of WWII. German-speaking (supposedly) but destitute; women, children, the old; A huge number of able-bodied men were in POW camps and remained there for years.
Regarding asylum-seekers: There was a recent discussion involving Douglas Murray and Yannis Varoufakis; DM rabbited on about refugees/asylum-seekers;VF swotted that away in about 20 seconds: Greece, a fraction the size and wealth of Germany had accepted 1M Albanian refugees 20 years ago and they were largely assimilated.
3) Defence: Germany, understandably, has a horror of its militarist past. Not sure how you can justify a reasonable level of spending to the electorate on that basis. But it did/does need to be done. So, Angela not good but not easy.
4) Industry/Exports: Germany certainly benefits from an undervalued euro but do do all the other euro one countries. Interesting point about Peugeot’s/China: Britain had the same problem: 1960’s: the British car industry dominated European markets; by the 1970’s, collapse: poor value, poor quality, underinvestment. Germany has euro advantages but it has kept up its development and investment.
5) Infrastructure: Undoubtedly a black mark. A stitch in time…
6) Nuclear Power/Coal: Again a black mark. But context: Germany has always had a strong anti-nuclear movement, the Greens. Of all the European countries, only France has a major commitment to nuclear and they don’t have a huge amount of coal let alone oil/gas: i.e. Germany panicked and they had an alternative.
7) Nordstrom’s: Germany has a tradition of dealing with the Soviet Union since the 70’s, realpolitik, and the SU has morphed into Russia. I do believe a bad decision but there is context.
8) PIIGS: Germany went through a major industrial upheaval in the early 2000’s: they were not competitive. Understandably, human nature is “we went through tough times and came out the other side, why can’t they?”.
Each of the trashed countries had built up their own store of problems: Ireland/Spain – speculative property booms; Greece: low tax take, corruption, fiddled their budget numbers to get into the euro, then massive borrowing to no good effect; Portugal: I hadn’t known about the comment above, interesting; Italy: disfunctional, Italians themselves are often the first to rue the Risorgimento.
Even allowing for the above, Germany’s response was tin-eared and largely to protect their own loans; why try to get Greece to pay back money which it just didn’t/doesn’t have?
Just default and start again; moral hazard? And then be more cautious about lending in future.
9) Trashing coalition partners: Done by the voters. That’s what happens at election time: each party tries to steal voters from their erstwhile partners.
The criticism from the article completely misunderstands how that system works.
10) Laschet: Only one of a completely underwhelming set of candidates; and that goes for all the parties. And he was chosen by the party, his main rival hemmed and hawed for ages about whether he would actually run or not.

Bruno Lucy
BL
Bruno Lucy
2 years ago

« 2) Refugees: Good point from Richard. Remember that Germany accepted 12M refugees at the end of WWII. German-speaking (supposedly) but destitute; women, children, the old; A huge number of able-bodied men were in POW camps and remained there for years.
Regarding asylum-seekers: There was a recent discussion involving Douglas Murray and Yannis Varoufakis; DM rabbited on about refugees/asylum-seekers;VF swotted that away in about 20 seconds: Greece, a fraction the size and wealth of Germany had accepted 1M Albanian refugees 20 years ago and they were largely assimilated. »

can’t see much similarities with the above mentioned refugees profiles and the largely almost impossible to assimilate Muslims. Merkel put her foot into her mouth years ago saying « Islam gehört su Deutschland » ……” Islam belongs to Germany”……never heard so much tosh in my entire life !
Albanians in Greece ?? Similar to Belgians in France…..they are neighbours !!!
You should read Sebastian Kurtz interview in Die Welt. He doesn’t want to see one Afghan refugee in Austria and he is right. They have enormous problems with that demographic that represents one of the highest population / Total population in Austria. Added to that the rape and murder of a 13 years old girl by 3 Afghan refugees…… no one in Europe wants a repeat of 2015.
Same in Sweden, same in Denmark.
WW2 refugees were largely German speaking and from the area. In 2015 Merkel opened a can of worms that is leaking plenty since then.
Yes, by all means, Germany did its bit……but they still made quality products that happened to be overpriced….once the Euro allowed the DM to be devalued Schröder came along and sent people into Hartz 4……everything became peachy for …….older Germans….I mean by that those who had enough money…..not the others forced to work penny pinching jobs into their 70’s…..
I am not sure all of this is to be regarded has a legacy worth celebrating.
The last point is the best. After having scrapped nuclear energy in a mob driven knee jerk reaction…….she now wants to have gas seen cleaner than nuclear energy, all the while using coal energy until 2035……Nordstream….thank you very much. And this farce is of course relayed in Brussels by ex Waffen Uschi …..aka von der Leyen who just parrots what she’s been told to by the boss in Berlin.

Last edited 2 years ago by Bruno Lucy
Richard Slack
Richard Slack
2 years ago

It is typical for most commentaries on Frau Merkel to pose an unflattering picture of her as part of the process. This is easy amnd not inevititable, I don’t think she has ever spent much time on worrying about her appearance let alone any kind of personal image, good for her! I can think of no recent British PM who would do their own shopping and actually enjoy being at football matches or Wagner Operas.
A lot of this piece dwells on the fact that she has been Chancellor of coalition governments. Well well! apart from a brief time ine the 1950s under Chancellor Adenaur, all German Governments are coalitions, the system is devised practically to ensure this and it has served the German people well. It compares with what we have in this country where 42% of the vote gives 100% of the power to a man aiming, blatantly, to removing any channels of opposition at all.
The Euro was well in place before Merkel came into power. The Germans were luke-warm at best for the Euro, after all they already had a European Currency, the Deutschmark which was welcome wherever they chose to spend it. However they went along with it to demonstrate their commitment to Europe. It is hardly the fault of Germany that the Euro has worked exactly as it was predicted it would.
I doubt if she ever took Cameron seriously. If Cameron had the courage of his undoubted pro-Europe pro-EU convictions he should have worked with the main-stream European right such as Merkel to rebuild the institution from within, replacing the France/Germany axis. It is how the EU and its predecessors have always worked. But he remained scared of Farage.
As far as the refugee crisis goes, it has been a feature of German life since the war to accomodate refugees. We will see in the longer term if her instincts were correct.

Bruno Lucy
BL
Bruno Lucy
2 years ago
Reply to  Richard Slack

Yes, they were lukewarm in adopting the Euro which in fact was a Deutsch Mark devaluation in disguise. The Germans fell for it and in the end, like the article said, benefited them plenty.
We french basically manufacture crap products…..cars nobody buys ….pots and pans ….apart from luxury products. The euro has made “ our stuff” a lot more expensive than it should. I remember travelling to Bejin in the early 90’s…….all cabs were……Peugeot. Have a look today. No Chinese would dare driving a Peugeot unless he wants to be a social outcast. Our trade balance is an abyss while Germany piggy bank is overflowing…..not even investing in new infrastructure…….that’s when being “ sparsam” becomes neurotic.
So ? Win win for Germany on all accounts……even military. It’s usually the French and the Brits who go down south to be shot at.
So ? She goes shopping to the supermarket ? Big fantastic deal ! I had diner a few tables away from the swedish Prime minister a few months ago. No one praises him in Sweden for going to the restaurant…..and it was nothing swanky….just handy a few blocks away from parliament.
Pretty scary to think that Angela Merkel’s achievement is doing her own shopping.
I am not holding my breath when it comes to the successor……Laschet would burst laughing at his own funeral and Scholz looks like a bookkeeper……mhmmm…..on second thought….he is a book keeper.

Last edited 2 years ago by Bruno Lucy
chris sullivan
CS
chris sullivan
2 years ago
Reply to  Richard Slack

Good balance thanks Richard

Alan Osband
AO
Alan Osband
2 years ago
Reply to  Richard Slack

So ‘it has been a feature of German life since the war to accommodate refugees ‘

So the rest of Europe not only had to endure A Hitler but has to suffer the effects of German war guilt as well