"What she leaves behind is marked by light and shadows."
Crises have a knack for felling leaders. Not Chancellor Angela Merkel.
During 16 years in power, the veteran navigated Germany through the 2008 financial turmoil and ensuing eurozone debt crisis, the 2015 refugee influx and then the coronavirus pandemic.
While largely admired at home and abroad even in the final days of her reign, the legacy she leaves behind is marked both by light and shadows.
A party in crisis
Merkel scraped to a narrow win in 2005 against incumbent chancellor Gerhard Schroeder of the Social Democrats, putting her conservative CDU-CSU alliance on the path of power for over a decade.
At the zenith of her popularity, Merkel led the conservatives to a thumping win with 41.5 percent of the vote in 2013.
With her track record, she was able to end a crucial TV election debate that year with the simple closing words “you know me.”
But her exit from politics was marred by a succession crisis in her party, culminating in a humiliating loss at September’s general elections that sent it into the opposition for the next four years.
Once dismissed as the sick man of Europe, Germany cemented its reputation as the continent’s economic engine on Merkel’s watch.
Unemployment is at record lows — 5.3 percent in November even as the economy is struggling with the impact of the pandemic.
Budget surpluses chalked up from 2012 also allowed the ageing nation to pay down a huge debt mountain, giving it a buffer against the impact of the health emergency.
But Germany’s fixation with balanced budgets has left a sour taste, particularly among southern Europeans battered by the financial and eurozone debt crises.
Merkel appeared to ignore pleas for debt relief when Greece was on the brink of economic collapse, triggering huge demonstrations in the country.
While credited with securing huge European bailouts that saved Greece from crashing out of the euro, it was achieved at a heavy social cost including massive job losses.
But it was COVID-19 that forced her to make a drastic U-turn on her resistance to mutualizing European debt.
Instead, Merkel spearheaded the 800-billion-euro ($950-billion) EU recovery fund, which sees the European Commission raising money by issuing bonds on behalf of all 27 members.
Merkel made the startling decision to shut Germany’s nuclear power plants in the aftermath of the 2011 Fukushima disaster, triggering the “Energiewende”—the shift to sustainable energy.
But the sudden policy shift forced greater reliance on coal energy in the transition period as the country battled to ramp up wind and biomass energy output.
Merkel’s government was accused of protecting Germany’s vital automobile industry by watering down emissions regulation reforms, and its refusal to advance a 2038 deadline to quit coal energy also irked green activists.
In a humiliating ruling against the government’s flagship environmental protection plan, Germany’s highest court in April ordered Merkel’s coalition to draw up an improved plan.
Her government subsequently brought forward targets to slash CO2 emissions by 65 percent by 2030 compared to 1990 levels, from an earlier goal of 55 percent.
“When I look at the situation, no one can say that we have done enough” for the environment, admitted Merkel in June.
“Time is pressing. I can understand the impatience of young people.”
Business as usual?
Merkel was lauded by human rights activists in 2015 for keeping Germany’s borders open to hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing war in Syria and Iraq.
But on China’s mass incarceration of Uyghurs in the far western region of Xinjiang, Merkel was accused of lacking bite.
Critics said she was hamstrung by huge economic interests in China.
Likewise, while Merkel spoke out firmly against Russia over the poisoning and jailing of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny, she stuck to her guns on completing a controversial gas pipeline called Nord Stream 2.
Far right, Europe fault lines
The arrival of more than a million asylum seekers in Germany further fractured the political landscape.
Popular anger over the mass influx sent a far-right bloc, the anti-immigration AfD, to parliament in 2017 for the first time since World War II, making it the biggest opposition force.
It also opened up a fault line with former Eastern bloc nations including Hungary and Poland, which have dug in their heels against the new arrivals.
Six years on, the European Union has been unable to agree on unified migration policies.
Legacy for women
As Germany’s first female chancellor, Merkel smashed the glass ceiling and became a role model for women politicians around the world.
But it was only at the very end of her time in office that she declared herself a feminist, having long resisted the term—too little, too late for some in Germany.
Critics say her government failed to make structural changes to benefit women in German society, such as reforming Germany’s tax system for married couples —a long-standing feminist plea.
The country’s gender pay gap also remains among the highest in the European Union and stood at 19 percent in 2019. AFP