The Merkel era: Unflappable crisis manager set to leave the stage

By Ulrich Steinkohl and Robin Powell, dpa

The term of Merkel at the helm of Europe’s economic powerhouse is set to be remembered for the crises she faced – but also for her understated style.

If there is a thread that runs through Angela Merkel’s time as chancellor, it lies in the crises that she has guided Germany through over her nearly 16 years in office.

“A life without crises would of course be simpler, but when they come up, they must be surmounted,” she said recently with her customary pragmatism.

These crises – many from abroad – show that Germans “are part of a global totality,” she added.

The first such “totality” after she took office in 2005 arrived in the form of the banking and financial crisis in autumn 2008. In Germany, the Hypo Real Estate bank was caught in the wake.

Merkel and then finance minister Peer Steinbrueck engaged in a remarkable double act on camera to set German investors at ease.

Standing before reporters, wearing a dark grey suit and with her hands held in her trademark diamond shape, Merkel said sombrely: “We are telling savers that their deposits are safe.”

Steinbrueck repeated her assurances, saying that they were an “important signal” to avoid “reactions that could make the crisis more difficult to overcome.”

Their carefully chosen words were effective; the feared bank run did not materialize, and Hypo Real Estate was later nationalized. The state also stepped in to support other banks, such as Commerzbank, with billions of euros in public funds.

From there the thread runs directly to the euro crisis. European Union member states – Greece in particular – faced insolvency on account of soaring national debt. The euro’s very existence was on a knife-edge.

“If the euro fails, Europe fails, and that cannot be allowed to happen,” said Merkel’s government.

Germany was ready to help, she said, but the “strict conditions” she put on that help turned her into a hate figure, particularly in Greece, where she was frequently shown on placards and at demonstrations in a Nazi uniform.

Nevertheless, avoiding massive damage to the German economy and protecting the euro meant that the engine of Europe’s economy stayed intact.

Likewise, the coronavirus pandemic was met with sombre resolve.

“This is serious. Take it seriously,” said Merkel in March 2020, in a rare television address.

The chancellor urged a cautious approach, pressing repeatedly for stricter measures in the face of opposition from some leaders of Germany’s 16 states. The limits of her power in the country’s federal system were made clear, as the state premiers declined at times to follow her lead.

Merkel demonstrated her European reach by pushing through an EU economic recovery fund of 750 billion euros (880 billion dollars) with the backing of French President Emmanuel Macron.

Overcoming such crises, as acclaimed journalist and author John Kampfner put it, mean that Merkel has come to embody “Germany’s profound longing for stability.”

But it is far from the full picture. Over a decade and a half, Merkel has also chosen to upend stability, often at her own cost.

In 2010, Germany ended military conscription and began relying on a professional military, breaking with the post-war tradition of a citizens’ army.

A year later came the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan and the sudden decision to abandon nuclear power in Germany.

The decision to allow same-sex marriage in 2017 falls into this category as well. Late in the day, Merkel unexpectedly gave her lawmakers a free vote on the issue. Most of her conservative bloc, including Merkel herself, voted against the measure, but the legislation passed with a clear majority.

But of all the crises Merkel faced, it is the migration crisis of 2015-16 that will prove her most complex and enduring legacy.

Of all the statements Merkel has made as chancellor, none has echoed down the years like her words on August 31, 2015. “We have managed so much; we’ll manage this,” she said, when the sheer numbers of refugees from the Middle East trying to reach northern Europe was still not clear.

In the early hours of September 5, the governments in Berlin and Vienna decided to leave open their borders – this was, after all, an internal border within the Schengen zone – to thousands of refugees stuck in Hungary.

“Many questioned her motives, and if not her motives then her competence,” Kampfner writes in his recent book on Germany. He goes on to describe it as “one of the most extraordinary moments in Germany’s post-war rehabilitation.”

Politically, however, it was a disaster for Merkel, and arguably for her centre-right Christian Democrats (CDU) as well.

The anti-immigration Alternative for Germany (AfD) surged in the polls, and rode a wave of anti-foreigner sentiment to become a force in the Bundestag for the first time at the 2017 elections. Much of the AfD vote came at the expense of the CDU.

The sharp increase in migration also led to a deep political split between the CDU and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), that threatened to bring down the coalition government.

It also exposed two sides of modern Germany: in some areas she became a hate figure and the target of protests, in other areas Germans held out welcome posters for the new arrivals.

A sharp fall in the numbers coming into the country and then the coronavirus crisis led to a truce of sorts, but the effort to accommodate over a million refugees – far more than any other country in that period – has changed Germany in ways that are only starting to become clear.

Now 67 years old, Merkel is still renowned for her careful preparation ahead of meetings, tackling problems with the scientific method she acquired in taking her doctorate in physics in East Germany in the 1970s.

Merkel may have topped the Forbes’ list of the world’s most powerful women 10 times in a row, but for her, the private has remained private.

Isolated holiday photos show her walking on the island of Ischia in the Gulf of Naples or hiking with her husband, Joachim Sauer, in the South Tyrol region of north-eastern Italy. And her annual visits to Bayreuth reveal her love for opera, and in particular the works of Richard Wagner.

The first US president – out of four – that Merkel dealt with during her 16 years offered this summary of her time in power.

“She did what’s best for Germany, and did so based upon principle,” George W Bush told German radio.

Merkel, although not on the ballot on Sunday, will stay in power until there is a new government in Germany, a period of at least weeks if not months.

As for her plans after that, she has given nothing away, other than that she will not be returning to Hamburg, the city where she was born.

“The time will come” to consider that question, she said.

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