Chancellorship with many challenges

Euro crisis, Ukraine conflict, Covid-19 pandemic – there were numerous crucial events during Angela Merkel’s time in office.

Angela Merkel at the G7 Summit 2018 in Canada with Donald Trump
Angela Merkel at the G7 Summit 2018 in Canada with Donald Trump picture alliance / Newscom

Angela Merkel governed Germany at a time of major global political crises. The collapse of the financial markets, the euro-related turbulence, the Ukraine conflict, the refugee debate and the Covid-19 pandemic, plus the ongoing climate crisis: just one of these challenges on its own would have been enough for an entire chancellorship.

In addition to this, Germany’s role grew during these years. The introduction of the single European currency strengthened the country’s position within Europe. The withdrawal of the United States from European affairs meant that, in the wake of the Ukraine crisis, Berlin acquired a key position in East-West relations. And after Donald Trump became president of the United States, Ms Merkel was allotted a role as leader of the free West. This was something she had never aspired to, and which Germany was unable to fulfil on its own.

Seeking continuous dialogue

Angela Merkel began as a chancellor of change and completed her time in office as a chancellor of continuity. This applied not only to German internal affairs, but especially to foreign policy as well.  When she assumed office in 2005, she opted for a stronger value-oriented course. She annoyed China, by receiving the Dalai Lama at the Federal Chancellery, and she adopted a stricter attitude towards Russia. On the other hand, and in contrast to her predecessor Helmut Kohl, deepening European unity was not one of her major concerns initially.

But as the stability of the liberal West continued to waver, preservation gradually became the main political responsibility. Although she maintained her critical stance towards Russian politics, with which she was better acquainted as a former GDR citizen than the other leading western politicians, she nevertheless sought continuous dialogue at the same time. In China she admired the country’s dynamism and spirit of enterprise. She believed that the West could not survive the competition among systems by isolating itself. Instead, the answer lay in the ability to assert itself in open competition. For Angela Merkel, this was a lesson learned from the collapse of the GDR.

The principle of openness

Again, in the case of taking in the refugees in autumn 2015, Ms Merkel stuck to the principle of openness. She did not want to be responsible for creating new borders again in Europe. And she acted more decisively here than in the euro crisis, to which she responded very hesitantly at first, mainly because of internal political constraints. She made amends in 2020 with the European Reconstruction Fund which envisaged a common borrowing policy.

The fact that she actually stood for her fourth, and most difficult, term in office in 2017 was mainly attributable to foreign political considerations. After the election of Donald Trump as United States President, she wanted to avoid giving the impression that the last relatively reliable pilot was abandoning the ship of liberal democracy. In the global turmoil of the years following 2008, Angela Merkel stood for stability, which some people may now be yearning for again.

Ralph Bollmann is journalist and author. He has just published a comprehensive biography of Angela Merkel.

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