Busting the Merkel Myth – POLITICO

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BERLIN — In an age of us-versus-them politics, soon-to-be ex-German Chancellor Angela Merkel may be the solely outstanding worldwide chief the international demos can truly agree on.


From Poland to Peru, clear majorities profess a good view of the East German physicist-turned-politician, whose 16-year tenure working Europe’s largest nation attracts to a detailed subsequent week.

In distinction to her best-known contemporaries, who span ex-U.S. president George W. Bush to Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi and Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Merkel is as well-liked overseas as she is at dwelling.

That constructive glow has additionally unfold throughout Germany. The nation is “held in the highest esteem we’ve ever measured,” the consultancy Gallup recently reported.

Whereas there’s no disputing Merkel’s international standing, the causes for it are much less clear. Past the apparent — she didn’t begin any wars or lay declare to different nations’ territory — the origin of her recognition is one thing of a riddle. 

One widespread rationalization is that Merkel’s seriousness, integrity and no-frills method to politics supply a robust antidote to the “large swinging dicks” dominating the international energy recreation.

And but, the woman-is-the-message logic isn’t the complete story.

In contrast to different towering political figures of the latest previous, be it Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and even Barack Obama, Merkel can declare no signature achievement. The historic milestones of her period — German reunification and the deepening of the European Union — occurred lengthy earlier than she got here to energy. Even the financial renaissance Germany loved throughout her tenure got here as the results of reforms undertaken by her predecessor.

Even so, Merkel’s legions of adherents ascribe all method of monumental achievement to her, spanning human rights to local weather coverage. They painting her as a fearless crisis fighter whose regular hand navigated Germany and Europe round the shoals of the Lehman Brothers’ collapse, the Greek debt implosion, the refugee disaster and the pandemic. The result’s what would possibly finest be described as the Merkel Myth.

“At a second of world political and social rupture, no chief on the world stage has protected the post-World Struggle II liberal democratic order as fiercely as she did, confronting aggressive authoritarians from Putin to Trump,” Katy Marton, the writer of a recent biography of the chancellor, writes with admiration in the preface to the ebook. “She reworked Germany into the chief of Europe — not simply an financial chief however an ethical one too — and into an immigrant nation by accepting a million Center Japanese refugees.”

However did Merkel actually “confront” international bullies? Did she rework Germany into Europe’s ethical chief? Is Berlin the world’s new Ellis Island?

The much less charitable view of Merkel is that she spent 16 years driving on the fumes of Germany’s industrial would possibly with out tackling the deeper challenges the nation confronted both at dwelling or overseas.

All through, Merkel opted to pacify as an alternative of resolve: When disaster erupted, she did simply sufficient to defang the acute drawback, solely to comb the bigger points that triggered the implosion beneath the rug. This tendency, critics argue, is her legacy on all the pieces from the integration of the eurozone to refugees and transatlantic relations. 

Historians are positive to spend many years debating Merkel’s impression on these (and different) fronts for years to return. However why wait? As Merkel leaves workplace, we’ve taken a primary crack at analyzing her legacy, weighing well-liked perceptions towards the document, in an try to separate reality from fiction, fable from actuality.


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Declare: After Trump’s election, Merkel, already seen by many as the world’s strongest girl, additionally grew to become “the leader of the free world,” conserving the candle of democracy burning.

Actuality: It was left-leaning American and British newspaper columnists who bestowed Merkel with this moniker, one so far-fetched that she herself referred to as it “grotesque and absurd.” Although Merkel was clearly not a fan of Trump, she by no means overpassed the place Germany’s bread was buttered. Simply weeks after Trump’s inauguration, she traveled to Washington, a big delegation in tow, to attempt to win over the American president and his household.

Whereas that effort finally failed, Merkel understood higher than most the diploma to which Europe’s prosperity and safety (and particularly Germany’s) trusted America. That explains her determination, in the face of Trump’s metal and aluminum tariffs geared toward German business, to considerably improve protection spending — and even commit to purchase American weaponry. It’s additionally why, regardless of his assaults on multilateralism and the “liberal order” she holds pricey, Merkel by no means broke with Trump.     

Backside line: Merkel wasn’t a lot the chief of the free world as she was the mascot of a world institution that recognized her as its final nice hope. No matter energy she had was of the gentle selection.

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Declare: Merkel stored Europe from falling aside.

Actuality: This assertion is rooted in the European debt disaster, originating in Greece in late 2009 and spreading to different nations on the eurozone’s periphery. Preserving the euro, the best expression of European integration, was essential to maintain the EU itself from collapsing. That’s why Merkel’s determination to bail out Greece is considered by her supporters as a seminal second in EU historical past.

At finest although, that’s solely half true. Her authorities’s preliminary response was to provide loans to Greece beneath usurious phrases that destabilized its political system and tipped the nation right into a melancholy from which it has but to get better. The financial austerity Europe imposed on Greece at Germany’s insistence was of a scale not seen in Europe since the conflict, which explains why Merkel’s approval score there’s simply 30 %.

Germans suffered too. After Greece defaulted, German taxpayers have been compelled to pour far more cash into the nation than would have been crucial had Merkel listened to cause at the outset.

Merkel additionally willfully ignored Germany’s historic complicity in Greece’s woes. Regardless of clear proof in the years main as much as the introduction of the euro that Greece was unprepared to affix the forex union, Germany, beneath Helmut Kohl, insisted it accomplish that, and looked the other way as Athens cooked the books.

That tortured historical past however, the oversight and bailout infrastructure that grew out of the disaster stay in place and symbolize a major leap in the direction of steeling Europe towards such shocks. Merkel’s settlement with French President Emmanuel Macron final 12 months to challenge widespread EU debt for the creation of a €750 billion pandemic reconstruction fund is an extra step in that course, one some observers regard as her most important European legacy.

Backside line: It’s a combined image. Merkel, hemmed in by her center-right celebration and that ur German phobia Europe would decide its pockets, managed to maintain the euro from collapsing — however solely simply. At the identical time, she did subsequent to nothing to resolve the largest risk to the euro: Financial imbalances between Germany and the remainder of the forex space, which stay stubbornly excessive regardless of a latest pandemic-induced dent. Whereas there needs to be little question about Merkel’s dedication to European unity, her insurance policies typically had unintended penalties (see under).

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Declare: Merkel confirmed nice compassion by admitting multiple million conflict refugees fleeing the Center East.

Actuality: Simply weeks earlier than the inflow reached its peak, Merkel got here beneath hearth for bringing a 14-year-old Palestinian refugee girl to tears by telling her in a public discussion board that many asylum seekers could be deported as a result of “politics is difficult.”

When Merkel made the determination to maintain Germany’s border open to refugees in late summer season 2015, she did so primarily based on two assumptions: that the whole would quantity a couple of hundred thousand and she or he might minimize a take care of different EU nations to share the burden.

She was improper on each counts. What’s extra, Merkel’s try to strong-arm different EU nations to just accept a refugee quota backfired, fueling far-right events throughout the bloc. In Germany, the Various for Germany, which that summer season had dipped into the low single digits in the polls, received a brand new lease on life. Authoritarian populists together with Hungary’s Viktor Orbán and Poland’s Legislation and Justice celebration used public fears of an EU-mandated migration scheme to tighten their maintain on energy. The division in the EU over refugee coverage poisoned the environment in the European Council, making progress on different fronts far more troublesome.

In Germany, confidence in Merkel’s course was undermined by the undeniable fact that these fleeing Syria’s civil conflict solely accounted for lower than one-third of the asylum functions. In 2015, for instance, the second-largest group of asylum seekers was from the Balkans.

Merkel responded to the political stress by agreeing to significantly tighten Germany’s asylum guidelines, making it far more troublesome for refugees arriving in Germany to convey their households. Along with the EU, she additionally minimize a take care of Turkish chief Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to seal off the migration routes in return for billions in money, an association that survives to at the present time. Turkey is now dwelling to greater than 3.6 million Syrian refugees. About 2 million extra are stranded in Lebanon and Jordan.

Backside line: Merkel’s motives might need been pure, however her refugee coverage was extra profitable in dividing Europe than in assuaging the humanitarian disaster.

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Declare: Merkel was a champion for liberal beliefs in the face of authoritarianism, standing as much as strongmen from Putin to Chinese language President Xi Jinping.

Actuality: Merkel packed her overseas coverage in gauzy rhetoric about human rights, however at road stage, her method over 16 years was guided by a easy maxim: Germany first.

On Russia, she’s typically lauded for supporting the sanctions the worldwide neighborhood imposed over Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine. In actual fact, she was a late convert, resisting intense pressure from the Obama administration. As involved as Berlin was about Putin’s intentions in Ukraine, Merkel additionally apprehensive sanctions would have little impact on his conduct whereas costing German enterprise billions in commerce and additional frightening Moscow.

What modified her thoughts in the finish was the downing of the Malaysian airliner MH-17, which killed practically 300 individuals. Western powers believed Russia was chargeable for the assault and the worldwide neighborhood wanted to provide you with a robust response. However at the same time as she allowed the sanctions to go forward, Merkel let one other necessary Russian initiative — the controversial gasoline pipeline Nord Stream 2 — proceed unabated. The undersea hyperlink between Russia and Germany, which critics declare is designed to permit Moscow to avoid present routes throughout Ukraine and deprive the nation of profitable transit charges, was accomplished this fall.

Merkel’s method to China has been related. At the same time as she criticized the authorities’s remedy of democracy protesters in Hong Kong and China’s persecution of its Muslim minority, she by no means let human rights impair the enterprise relationship. Throughout her time in workplace, she visited the nation, Germany’s largest buying and selling associate, a dozen instances.

Her playbook was no completely different nearer to dwelling. In the face of Hungary’s descent into authoritarianism beneath Orbán, Merkel steadfastly refused to threaten, a lot much less apply any financial stress, regardless of Hungary’s dependence on German commerce and funding. The identical has been true of Poland. 

Backside line: Merkel talked powerful on human rights and democratic beliefs, however when push got here to shove she did what was finest for German enterprise.

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Declare: Merkel is a feminist icon who pursued a progressive agenda, from social points to the surroundings.

Actuality: For many of her time period, Merkel refused to even describe herself as a feminist, arguing that she wasn’t a trailblazer on par with the likes of the French thinker Simone de Beauvoir. Her document helps that conclusion. She had fewer girls in her first cupboard than her predecessor, for instance. Extra broadly, the promotion of girls to positions of energy in Germany stays extra an exception than the rule, whether or not in enterprise or politics. Of the 40 firms represented in Germany’s blue-chip inventory index, just one has a female CEO (and she or he’s Spanish). Girls comprise simply 34 % of the German parliament, putting Germany 42nd in the world by way of gender parity.

Her document is equally combined on different progressive priorities. Throughout a Bundestag vote on homosexual marriage in 2017, for instance, she allowed her Christian Democrats to “vote their conscience.” She did the identical — by voting against the measure.

On the surroundings, Merkel has been celebrated as the “local weather chancellor” for prioritizing Germany’s so-called power transformation (Energiewende), a authorities plan greater than 20 years in the making to shift electrical energy manufacturing from fossil fuels to renewables. It’s been a rocky street. To this point, Germany hasn’t even crossed the midway mark.

In the meantime, Merkel’s determination in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear catastrophe in Japan to modify off all nuclear energy by 2022 has made the nation extra depending on coal-fired electrical energy manufacturing than she had hoped. Local weather analysts say that with out additional reforms (which the incoming coalition has promised) Germany has no likelihood of attaining its climate goals for 2030, a lot much less carbon neutrality by 2045.

Backside line: Merkel’s unlikely rise and elegance of management have made her a feminist image, however her general document as a progressive is decidedly combined.

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