In central Berlin, a giant billboard shows a pair of hands, arranged in a diamond shape, in front of a female torso dressed in a green jacket. “Tschüss Mutti” reads the notice board. ” Goodbye Mom. “
Even without a face, the Germans know who is represented. The diamond, the colorful jacket and the word ‘Mutti’ are iconic, as is Angela Merkel herself.
After 16 years, Germany says “Tschüss” to its longtime Chancellor. Across the country, Merkel’s departure sparked affectionate nostalgia with a hint of irony. But there is also fatigue, which borders on irritation, a nervous agitation to see her go back and forth. As with most farewells, feelings are mixed.
For Merkel, a leader who has never sought praise, a low-key and almost ambivalent exit seems appropriate. But it also reveals an irony about his reign. The qualities that have ensured his success – his prudence and constancy, his steadfastness and diligence – are now, at the end of his term, which lead some to view his departure with relief. The Germany that Merkel has made, in nearly two decades of steadfast stewardship, is ready to move on.
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Despite all her calm, Merkel’s tenure has not been without turmoil. She led Germany through a series of crises – the financial crash of 2008, the euro debt crisis that followed, the migration crisis of 2015 and, of course, the pandemic. She negotiated a truce, albeit fragile, between Russia and Ukraine, helped negotiate Brexit, and saw Donald Trump come and go. Every event had the potential to divide the world. Thanks in part to Merkel, none have.
Its role in these crises continues to be debated. Many progressives argue that her austerity policies have done more harm than good, and many conservatives believe she should have closed Germany’s borders to migrants in 2015. The overall verdict, however, is unlikely to change. Under heavy pressure, Merkel was a conservative in the best sense of the word, preserving the country’s prosperity, cohesion and raison d’être. Her great achievement is not what she built, but what she managed to keep.
Yet preservation can quickly turn to stagnation. Many of Merkel’s policies that had an initial stabilizing effect had long-term hidden costs. And just as she’s about to step down, it’s starting to show. His “sins of omission” – as a British historian and German expert, Timothy Garton Ash told me – are becoming painfully evident.
Take Europe. For nearly two decades, Merkel has played a disproportionate role in guiding the union through a succession of challenges. But in the process, she accumulated future problems.
In 2016, for example, the Chancellor spearheaded an agreement with Turkey to welcome refugees. This decision ended the year-long migration crisis, during which more than a million migrants sought asylum in Europe. But this is hardly a lasting solution, neither for Turkey – where economic difficulties and the growing number of refugees threaten to destabilize the country – nor for Europe. Migrants, especially after the US withdrawal from Afghanistan and the takeover of the country by the Taliban, will continue to seek refuge on the continent. A viable solution, attentive to the needs of both migrants and citizens, must be found.
In other areas, too, Merkel’s approach has failed. Its handling of the euro debt crisis helped secure the bloc’s future, but at the cost of leaving the underlying dynamics intact – over-indebted southern countries and an unbalanced monetary union. His conciliatory approach with Russia, especially over the controversial Nord Stream 2 pipeline, seems increasingly untenable as President Vladimir Putin ruthlessly consolidates his regime.
And while its tendency to avoid censoring Hungary and Poland for their violations of the rule of law protected the bloc from disintegration, it avoided critical questions about the character of Europe. In Merkel’s absence, European leaders – including whoever’s next German Chancellor – will have to determine the bloc’s future direction. How will she deal with the heightened rivalry between America and China? To what extent will it engage in a more autonomous defense strategy? And how will he fight against the rise of the far right?
At home, a similar pattern prevailed. Look at the economy. Yes, Germany’s export surplus hit a record high during Merkel’s tenure, and GDP hit a record high in 2019. But it came at the cost of increased dependency – some say excessive – with regard to the Chinese market, which Merkel has done little to remedy. Moreover, by shielding the German auto industry from more ambitious carbon emissions targets, Merkel has effectively exonerated executives from the need to innovate. This is one of the reasons why German automakers scramble to keep up with their American and Chinese counterparts.
Then there is climate change. Trying to protect key industries and fearing to impose too many changes on voters, Merkel refrained from any large-scale plans to cut emissions until the end of her term. And although the share of renewables increased to 45% during his tenure, many experts agree that on its current trajectory, the country will not meet its goal of being carbon neutral by now. 2045. Despite being seen abroad as the “climate chancellor”, Merkel has taken only very minor steps to address the defining issue of our time.
All of this makes for a country that is both cozy and pampered, ignoring the dangers that await you behind the scenes. Ursula Weidenfeld, business journalist and author of a recent biography of the Chancellor, compared Merkel’s Germany to the Shire in “The Lord of the Rings” by JRR Tolkien. Peaceful and prosperous, old-fashioned soothing, self-satisfied to the point of delusion, and naive in a sympathetic but bewildering way: the analogy is appropriate.
Ms Merkel protected the Shire, which is what the Germans expected of her and why she won four national elections in a row. But in doing so, she fostered her particular detachment from the world and her reluctance to change, innovate or even discuss different ways forward.
The Chancellor also got stuck in her tracks. Humble and unpretentious, she considered herself a servant of her country. But in return for her service, dedication and skill, she has come to expect, even demand, blind trust. She became more and more impatient with the constant chatter of the German political class.
His famous line during the migration crisis – “We can do it” – was for some a welcome dose of optimism. But for others, notably in his own party, it was a decree, a royal diktat from above silencing the opposition and limiting debate. Perhaps this trend has hardened over time. Before one of the interminable meetings with the 16 German governors during the first wave of the pandemic in 2020, she would have complained about the “orgies of debates on the reopening of the country”.
It was an unusual outburst, which underscored a growing unease about his methods and achievements. After all, the pandemic has exposed Germany’s lack of digital services, the need to modernize its public health service, and the vulnerability of the economy’s supply chains. The July floods, in which more than 200 people lost their lives, were a tragic reminder that Germany will not be spared the dangers of climate change. In this context, the prospect of change, no matter how familiar the candidates are, has become more attractive.
Just a few years ago, Merkel was presented as the “leader of the free world”. Against Mr. Trump’s chaos and disruption, his understated and judicious style was widely envied. Now, at a turning point in history, different qualities are sought after. I’m pretty sure there will be many times in the not-so-distant future when the Germans will be sadly missed by Angela Merkel. And yet: it is time. Tschüss Mutti.