The legacy of German Chancellor Angela Merkel
As a four-time German Chancellor Angela Merkel will be retiring this month after the Parliament elections to the Bundestag on September 26
As a four-time German Chancellor Angela Merkel will be retiring this month after the Parliament elections to the Bundestag on September 26. Angela Merkel is a unique personality, and her official and private life is example-giving for many politicians of today. She lived in a normal apartment like any other citizen before being elected Chancellor of Germany. She continued to live in it and does not own a villa, servants, swimming pools or gardens.
During these 16 years as Chancellor, no transgressions were recorded against her, nor she assigned any of her relatives to a government post. She did not get millions in payment, nor did she organized public relations to cheer her performance with fanfare. When Angela Merkel spoke for the last time in German Parliament on 24th June this year and thanked the nation, the reaction of the Germans was unprecedented in the history of the country. The entire population went out to their balconies of their houses and clapped for her spontaneously for six continuous minutes. A standing ovation nationwide.
Champion of new German consensus
It is highly interesting that Angela Markel's very presence as a Protestant, Scientist, East German woman at the helm of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), a male-dominated, largely Catholic party, with its roots in West Germany, has changed not only her party but arguably also German society. Merkel is Germany's first female political leader who helped turn the deeply traditional Christian Democratic Party into "one of the pillars of the new German consensus". This has in turn resulted in new policy directions in her last four terms of 16 years on everything from economic and social programs, European and International relations, refugee issues, minimum wages, energy reform to family and women's rights – including the decision to introduce female quotas into the board of directors of companies.
Reforms for economic recovery and social cohesion
When global economic crisis loomed since 2008, unlike other European leaders, Merkel has turned it into an opportunity. She adroitly fended off a long-term recession in Germany at the time the global economic crisis hit by introducing economic stimulus packages and shortening working hours, whereby workers worked less but had their earnings topped up by the government rather than business. As a result, Germany flourished in the crisis (helped also by being able to take advantage of other favorable conditions such as low interest on bonds and Germany's strong – some would say too strong – position as an exporter).
In Germany the share of industry in gross value added is 22.9 per cent, making it the highest the G7 countries. The strongest sectors are automobile, electrical industry, engineering, and chemical industry. Together with China and the USA, Germany is one of the three largest exporting nations. Most interesting development making Germany nearly full employment state is the fact that medium-sized enterprises form the heart of the German economy. In other words, companies with an annual turnover of less than 50 million Euros and less than 500 employees. This sector of the economy embraces 99.6 per cent of German companies. More than 1,000 of these companies are so-called hidden champions, i.e., often publicly less well-known international market leaders.
However, Merkel's handling of the euro-zone debt crisis, on the other hand, led to criticism of an approach many considered too strict. Even the broadly pro-austerity International Monetary Fund Director, Christine Lagarde, drew attention to the harm that harsh austerity measures could inflict on an already-damaged economy. Despite those challenges, the leader of Europe's most populous and economically powerful country could convince the member states and implement these measures consistently.
Concerning reforms to strengthen social cohesion, "Elterngeld" or parent benefit was introduced to support couples with children by Merkel's government in 2007. It is Germany's version of maternity pay but is available to either parent and aimed at lessening the financial burden on families and boosting Germany's very low birthrate. The tax-financed scheme allows parents to share up to 14 months off after the birth of a child and gives each up to 67% of their salary during that time. Merkel staunchly fought the opponents of parent benefit within her own conservative alliance, having declared it to be one of the planks of her government policy, defending the right for men to take time off to bring up their children. While not boosting the birth rate, the policy has had a major impact on family life in Germany, particularly on the lives of working mothers.
While "Minimum Wage" has been driven by her coalition partners, the Social Democrats, it is still considered to be to Merkel's credit that a minimum wage has been introduced on her watch, following years of campaigning to alleviate social injustice. The €8.50-an-hour rate was introduced on 1st January 2015 and since 1st January 2021 it stands at €9.50, has played a significant positive role to help tackle growing social divisions and deal with increasing wage inequality. It was also aimed at boosting the wages of those who have effectively endured a pay freeze as employers argued low wages were necessary for Germany's companies to maintain their competitive edge.
Merkel was elected as Chancellor in 2005 as head of a "grand coalition" government of CDU and rival Social Democratic Party (SPD). In 2007, she hosted the World Economic Summit of the G8 industrialized countries. "I have been fighting for climate action for over ten years now and I consider it to be a tough struggle," Merkel said in an interview a few days before the G8 summit. Asked about the reservations of US President George W. Bush against a 2°C warming limit, she said: "You can be assured that I won't accept trusted scientific findings such as those by the IPCC to be watered down."
Eventually, she persuaded G8 leaders to accept the science of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and got them to agree to the necessity of binding CO2 reduction targets. Merkel also successfully persuaded the European Union (EU) with 27 nations to adopt emissions reduction targets. The German press dubs her as "Klimakanzlerin" (Climate Chancellor). Merkel's style of government has been characterized by pragmatism, although critics have decried her approach as the absence of a clear stance and ideology. She demonstrated her willingness to adopt the positions of her political opponents if they proved to be sensible and popular.
Mastering refugee crisis
Angela Merkel was also faced with Europe's gravest refugee crisis since World War II when hundreds of thousands of migrants fleeing conflicts in Syria, Afghanistan, and elsewhere flocked to the EU. More than one million migrants entered Germany in 2015, and Merkel's party paid a steep political price for her stance on refugees. As the backlash against migrants manifested itself in street protests and at the ballot box, the right-wing Alternative for Germany (Alternative für Deutschland; AfD) was among the parties to capitalize on the rising tide of populism and xenophobia in Europe. Elsewhere, appeals to nationalism had fueled the successful "yes" campaign in the U.K.'s Brexit referendum (June 2016) and propelled Donald Trump to victory in the U.S. presidential election (November 2016), but Merkel continued to tack toward the centre as she announced that she would seek a fourth term. That contest saw Merkel win her fourth term as chancellor. She was viewed as "the woman who saved the dignity of Europe." It is also discussed in the public opinion that she has a set of strong values, and she understands Germany's history exceedingly well, in part because she comes from East Germany. In this context, it is the Hitler regime and the Second World War and holocaust, the division of the German nation and decades of cold war and their implications on millions of people.
This is hailed as a very historical decision by the German society and international community. After more than 50 years, the Bundeswehr (armed forces) abolished compulsory conscription (serving the army) in July 2011, as part of plans to reduce the expenditures and size of the military from around 240,000 soldiers to a professional and much fitter army of 170,000.
New moderating foreign policy
Merkel has scored points for her foreign policy endeavors, most recently ensuring that she is in constant dialogue with the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, over the Crimea dispute. Thanks to her East German upbringing she knows Russian culture well and speaks Russian to an excellent standard. She has emphasized to other western leaders that pressurizing him too much could push Russia into political and economic chaos, which would be good neither for Russia, Germany nor Europe. During her chancellorship, her country grew into a foreign policy role which postwar Germany never had and never dreamt of being a foreign political actor, being the central balancing moderating power in Europe, leading the European Union. Undoubtedly Germany is a strong supporter of peaceful international order and mutual cooperation in economic relations. India and Germany have a "Strategic Partnership" since 2001, which has been further strengthened with the Inter-Governmental Consultations (IGC) at the level of Head of Governments (German Chancellor and the Prime Minister) which allows for a comprehensive review of Cooperation and identification of new areas of engagement.
(The author is Humboldt-Expert in Agriculture, Environment and Cooperation)