As the head of the country’s biggest political party for eighteen years, and its chancellor for twelve, Angela Merkel has done more to shape contemporary Germany than any post-war leader other than Konrad Adenauer, Willy Brandt, and Helmut Kohl. So her recent announcement that she will hand over the leadership of her Christian Democratic Union (C.D.U.) this December, and refrain from seeking another term in federal elections expected to be held in 2021, marks the beginning of the end of an era.
Since Merkel has been a deeply stabilizing force, and political extremists are lying in wait to exploit her departure, it is only natural to wonder how the country will change in the coming years. Will the C.D.U. lurch to the right after its proudly moderate leader leaves the stage? Can the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), which has already established itself as a major force in German politics, use the power vacuum she leaves behind to its advantage? Or might a change of political personnel actually help to calm the anger that Merkel has increasingly inspired in the past years?
These are all important questions that concern the country’s likely future. But in order to understand the political predicament in which Germany now finds itself, and make an educated guess as to how Merkel’s departure might change the country, it is first necessary to understand the legacy she leaves behind.
Merkel is both one of the most impressive and one of the least likely politicians to lead Germany in its post-war history. Born in Hamburg but raised in the country’s east as the daughter of a pastor, she was a triple outsider: in a party dominated by westerners, she was an Ossi who had lived under the yoke of the communist regime until the age of thirty-five; in a party historically dominated by Catholics, she was a Protestant; and in a party that was overwhelmingly male and frequently chauvinist—her mentor, Helmut Kohl, often referred to her as “my little girl” in the early 1990s—she was a childless woman. All in all, it is hardly surprising that since her earliest days in politics she has been consistently underestimated by friend and foe.
When the C.D.U. was rocked by financial scandal in the late 1990s, its then leader, Wolfgang Schäuble, was forced to resign, and many of the party’s other senior statesmen were too tainted to take over. Merkel saw her opening and exploited it through a characteristic combination of ruthlessness and guilelessness: untainted by the scandal in good part because nobody could quite imagine that the old guard would have let her in on its illicit financial dealings, Merkel won the top job when, unlike her competitors, she publicly took Kohl to task for his misdoings.
The manner of Merkel’s ascension to the party leadership in 2000 foreshadowed her governing style once she became the first female chancellor of Germany five years later. She is a master tactician, with a keen sense of her opponents’ weaknesses. Unusually taciturn for a head of government, she rarely jumps into a contentious debate until public opinion has firmly swung in one direction or another—but then she acts in a decisive manner (as she did in turning on Kohl). Although she does appear to have a genuine and heartfelt commitment to the principles that have guided the politics of the Federal Republic since the end of World War II—democracy, the rule of law, and an instinctive belief in the European project—one thing has played virtually no role in her political ascent: a true political vision of her own.
As a result, the legacy Merkel leaves behind is deeply paradoxical. She governed the country with great calm and competence, steering a centrist course that reflected the public’s mood for the first years of her tenure. Her understated commitment to the values of liberal democracy gave her broad appeal, and even attracted the grudging admiration of many on the left. Especially as she faced the rise of right-wing populism in the shape of the AfD at home, she came to be celebrated as an embodiment of liberal values; some even went so far as to proclaim her the new leader of the free world.
And yet I increasingly fear that history will judge Merkel rather more harshly than most imagine today. For while she is both impressive and admirable, she has failed to mount a satisfactory response to the three major crises Europe has faced over the past decade. Her reluctance to reform the European Union in response to the euro crisis prolonged southern Europe’s economic pain and leaves the single currency vulnerable to future economic crises. Her failure to explain her course in the refugee crisis to her fellow citizens has amplified a xenophobic backlash and allowed an extremist party to take hold in Germany’s political system for the first time since the end of World War II. And her unwillingness to confront authoritarian populists in Poland and Hungary has weakened democracy in central Europe, posing an existential threat to the survival of the European Union.
The euro crisis that dominated European politics in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis exposed a deep structural flaw in the construction of the single currency zone: In the long run, you need a common fiscal and economic policy—ideally including a transfer union—to sustain a project like the euro. European politicians confronted an unenviable choice. Either they needed to make a big and ambitious push toward greater unification, which many of the continent’s citizens would have passionately opposed; or they somehow needed to find a way to dismantle the euro, or at least expel its weakest members, without causing immense economic suffering.
As the crisis dragged on, increasingly loud voices in Germany and beyond pushed for either one or the other of these solutions. True to her usual style, Merkel opted for a tactical waiting game. Unwilling to undertake ambitious structural reform or to push indebted countries in southern Europe out of the euro, she reluctantly agreed to a series of bailout packages that were just big enough to stave off imminent disaster.
In the short run, her course of action was vindicated. Greece, Spain, Italy, and Portugal did not crash out of the euro. Financial calamity has not yet descended upon the continent. And yet the longer-term costs of her strategy—or, rather, her lack of one—have been immense. A decade of austerity has artificially depressed economic performance in southern Europe, and it has forced millions of young Europeans to emigrate or go without jobs. The sense that Germany was making economic decisions for Greece and Italy has led to enormous resentment in those countries. And as the brewing crisis over Italy’s ballooning deficit reminds us, none of this anger and suffering has helped to remedy the underlying disease: the euro’s fundamental construction flaw remains nearly as dangerous today as it was ten years ago.
That same lack of clear direction was on display amid the refugee crisis that roiled German politics in 2015, and has arguably had downstream effects from central Europe to the United Kingdom. Angela Merkel’s “decision” to “open the doors” to more than a million refugees fleeing the violence in Syria has often been portrayed as a courageous strategy borne out of proudly humanitarian values. The truth is rather more complicated. As an ever-growing number of refugees reached the continent’s shores over the course of 2015, Merkel initially refused to comment. During that summer, she drew heavy criticism for giving a cold response to a teenage asylum seeker who pleaded to be allowed to stay in Germany, and for failing to condemn a xenophobic attack in a timely manner. Tens of thousands of citizens flocked to railway stations across the nation to welcome refugees arriving in the country. Lacking a clear legal option for how to keep refugees who had already arrived on European soil out of Germany, Merkel decided to make a virtue out of perceived necessity: convinced that public opinion had firmly swung in favor of the refugees, she vowed to keep the country’s doors open to them.
Virtually as soon as Merkel had figured out which way the crowd was headed—and rushed forward shouting, “Follow me!”—the mood in the country shifted. More and more Germans worried that, far from being a temporary exception, the heavy influx of refugees might be the new normal. When a large group of immigrants and refugees molested dozens of women at a public New Year’s celebration in Cologne, Willkommenskultur (a culture of welcoming refugees) gave way to Fremdenangst (fear of newcomers).
In her pragmatic style, Merkel corrected course. While she steadfastly refused to adopt an upper limit to the number of refugees the country would accept, she struck a series of deals with Greece and Turkey that effectively made it impossible for most migrants to reach German territory. The influx that Germany experienced in the summer of 2015 has not been repeated since.
But even as Merkel was quietly doing what she could to stem the refugee flow, she refused to reverse course publicly or to engage in a candid discussion of the challenges that the newcomers posed. This reticence provided an opening for the far right to stoke the fears of ordinary citizens. Polls indicate that most Germans were genuinely torn about how to handle the refugee crisis. The respondents had real compassion for people fleeing the carnage in Syria and were proud of the country’s humanitarian response. But they also worried that a continuing influx would prove unmanageable, and they found reports of serious crime unsettling. If Merkel had assured her countrymen that the summer of 2015 would not be repeated, and spoken candidly about the institutional failures that allowed some criminals to go unpunished, she might have forestalled the rapid rise of the extreme right. Instead, the chancellor never set out her vision for the future of the country’s refugee policy. Right-wing agitators could claim that she sought to “replace” Germany’s population, or that mainstream politicians were unwilling to respond to growing concerns about sexual crimes, without having to contend with a real counter narrative. As a result, a far-right party has, for the first time since 1945, managed to establish itself as a major force in German politics.
But it may be Merkel’s failure to confront the spread of authoritarian populism beyond German borders that will, eventually, come to define her legacy. The case of Hungary is particularly egregious. Even as it became increasingly obvious that Viktor Orban was determined to consolidate his power at the expense of the rule of law, Merkel failed to coordinate any kind of principled response. She did not call on the European Union to start the process of expelling Hungary, or even to halt its generous payments to the country. Worse still, she allowed Fidesz, the movement that Orban heads, to stay in the influential faction in the European Parliament to which her own party, the C.D.U., also belongs.
By now Orban has effectively dismantled liberal democracy in Hungary. And because he has forged strong alliances with other authoritarian governments (Poland’s, for example), he can easily block the mechanisms that would have allowed the E.U. to hold him accountable. In other words, it now looks very likely that the E.U. will continue to tolerate de facto dictatorships in its midst for the foreseeable future. But that undercuts the very basis of the union’s legitimacy. German citizens have historically understood the case for pooling part of their sovereignty with other democracies, like France. But they will eventually find it intolerable to do the same with authoritarian strongmen in Warsaw or Budapest.
Angela Merkel would have made for an excellent leader in ordinary times. The abiding irony of her record is that she happened to take power at the one moment in Germany’s post-war history when the country—and the world—desperately needed its chancellor to pursue a bold vision.
This makes it all the more worrying that Merkel has effectively side-lined the most talented and visionary members of her party in recent years. Indeed, her heir apparent, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, shares many of her weaknesses without having the benefit of her strengths. And so the greatest danger now facing Germany is not, as many commentators have suggested in the past week, a change of course. Rather, it is that her hand-chosen successor will commit the same inadvertent sin for which Merkel’s own tenure will be remembered: at a time when Germany desperately needs to face up to the serious crises it has ignored for the last twelve years, it is likely to keep pretending that politics as usual amounts to a strategy for defending the embattled values of liberal democracy.
*Yascha Mounk is one of the world's leading experts on the crisis of liberal democracy and the rise of populism
This article was originally published on Foreign Affairs.