In 2019, Angela Merkel’s government presented its ‘climate protection law’, a series of arguably ambitious measures, which put Germany on track to reduce its net carbon emissions by 65 percent within 2030, and to achieve carbon neutrality by 2045. Given the urgency of the climate crisis, activists and advocacy groups nevertheless expressed frustration at what they perceived to be an unsatisfactory, insufficient set of policies. In response to her critics, Merkel, with her characteristic sobriety, simply stated: “Politics is all about what is possible”.
Pragmatic, realistic, dispassionate. Those few words, echoes of Otto von Bismarck’s “art of the possible” philosophy, encapsulate, as well as any seven words could, the successes and the failures of Angela Merkel’s time as the German Chancellor and de facto leader of the European Union; four terms—16 years—which are coming to an end after the 26th of September 2021.
During Angela Merkel’s time as the Chancellor, spanning from 2005 all the way to 2021, Germany and Europe have been confronted with momentous, existential challenges.
As she steps away from the podium, her political legacy is already being vivisected, perhaps in the hope of finding nuggets of wisdom, even omens, for the future of Europe post-Merkel. However, beyond the merits and faults of her individual decisions, it is worth asking: What has Angela Merkel’s vision for the European Union been? How has her pragmatic conceptualisation of politics shaped the identity of the continent during a time of crisis and profound transformation for Europe?
During Angela Merkel’s time as the Chancellor, spanning from 2005 all the way to 2021, Germany and Europe have been confronted with momentous, existential challenges. Chief amongst them the 2008 global financial crisis and ensuing Euro debt crisis, which threatened to undermine the very survival of the European project. Indeed, as debt-stricken Greece was on the precipice of abandoning the common currency and potentially the Union in 2010, it was Merkel who, albeit reluctantly, pulled together support and resources for a bailout. As part of the relief package, Athens was asked by Berlin to implement stringent austerity measures that were intended to bring stability to their national economy, and to the Eurozone as a whole. Angela Merkel’s careful calculation of the complex interplay of interests at stake and her consequent scientific decision has since been considered the reason the Eurozone still stands today.
From the crisis, Germany emerged as the de facto leader of the European Union. That was not only due the country’s objective economic weight within the bloc, but also because of Angela Merkel’s unparalleled ability to position herself at the median point of Europe’s political debate. Indeed, the Chancellor has consistently proved to be able to build consensus across the different European capitals, whose particular interests have at times appeared to be irreconcilable. Nevertheless, under Merkel’s measured and quiet leadership, negotiated agreements have been found. Most recently, following the economic disruption unleashed by the COVID-19 pandemic, it has been her unexpected backing of the 2020 EU Recovery Fund mechanism that has opened the door for EU-wide financial mutualisation, unthinkable only a few years ago.
Her unique talent for maintaining unity both domestically and at the European level has proven to be equally pivotal in matters of foreign policy. When Russian troops invaded Ukraine and occupied the peninsula of Crimea in 2014, Merkel spearheaded the EU response. She rallied leaders in support of coordinated sanctions and kept up the pressure on Moscow throughout the negotiations, which ultimately led to a ceasefire. Similarly, at the zenith of the 2015 refugee crisis, Merkel’s Germany allowed more than one million Syrian refugees into its borders. Her controversial decision lifted the burden that was placed on countries along the Balkan route and avoided an internal Schengen-area rift over refugee settlement.
Under Merkel’s measured and quiet leadership, negotiated agreements have been found. Most recently, following the economic disruption unleashed by the COVID-19 pandemic, it has been her unexpected backing of the 2020 EU Recovery Fund mechanism that has opened the door for EU-wide financial mutualisation, unthinkable only a few years ago.
Credit to Angela Merkel for consistently finding a commonly agreed upon short-term solution cannot be denied. However, it has come at the cost of a larger, structural change to Germany and to the European Union. Not only that, her “art of the possible” attitude towards politics has sanitised public debate within the EU to a point where a healthy degree of democratic controversy has been removed. As potentially historic decisions were taken, one after the other, by principle of exclusion, the ideal, the political were pushed to the periphery of decision-making.
Angela Merkel’s governing style can be seen as overtly committed to the politics of agreement. The preservation of consensus is achieved by advancing legal, technocratic solutions to inherently political problems, thus drowning out opposition and covering up controversy by “consensual silence”. Merkel has often been described as the anthesis of the kind of populism and extremism that has been on the rise in Europe, and rightfully so. However, bureaucratic excesses were precisely what Weber theorised and warned against, considering them as corrosive to democracy as fascist tendencies.
The Greek bailout is a perfect example of a short-term fix to a much larger structural problem, which has never been addressed for fear of igniting a conflictual internal debate in the EU. Indeed, the Euro debt crisis was the symptom of underlying weaknesses in the financial design of the monetary union and of the common currency. Instead of amending those fundamental flaws, Angela Merkel opted for a policy solution aimed not only at restoring the pre-existing status quo, but also at institutionalising it through conditionalities. In order to legitimise such a decision, she framed it as a logical and scientific necessity. In her own words, it was as if there was “no alternative”.
Necessity as an organising principle of politics has been a feature of the European Union public debate throughout Merkel’s chancellorship. Reform in Brussels has mostly been formulated as a reaction to sudden emergencies, which have, therefore, become the propelling force for decisions at the EU level. This has led to a disconnect between the governors and the governed, fuelling resentment and ultimately the very kind of populism Angela Merkel has tried so adamantly to fend off.
In Merkel’s handling of EU-Russia relations, we can see the mirror image of the depoliticisation process that she has been carrying out within the bloc.
Even Merkel’s much applauded decision of welcoming Syrian refugees has ultimately gone on to be an exception dictated by a “moral” emergency, but an emergency nonetheless. In the wake of the Syrian exodus, no meaningful reform was implemented to the EU asylum system, which still operates under the flawed mechanism of the Dublin Regulation. Germany itself proceeded to put a ceiling on the number of non-EU migrants it would accept from other member states after 2015, as most other countries in Europe did. The leadership vacuum left by Merkel and other European leaders was then swiftly filled up by far-right nativist politicians, who capitalised on their indecisiveness and ambiguity.
A similar pattern can be seen, perhaps even more starkly, when it comes to the identity of the European Union on the global stage. In Merkel’s handling of EU-Russia relations, we can see the mirror image of the depoliticisation process that she has been carrying out within the bloc. While she undoubtedly showed resolve in imposing sanctions against Moscow in the wake of Ukraine’s occupation, she has been reluctant to re-orient Germany and the EU’s Russia policy as a consequence. The epitome of that is the Nord Stream 2 oil pipeline project, whose construction has not been halted by Angela Merkel’s government despite multiple diplomatic incidents. In fact, Merkel has consistently opposed calls for a more proactive EU foreign policy, such as those coming from French President Emmanuel Macron. That has been the case vis-à-vis Turkey, in the face of a hostile Trump administration, and even more pronouncedly when it comes to China. Merkel has shown a conviction that international relations can be depoliticised by compartmentalising, by treating each of its part—military tensions, human rights, climate policy, trade, etc.—as a separate entity. The outcome of that has hardly been a more peaceful world. Instead, it has led to a self-constrained, erratic, ultimately suboptimal EU foreign policy.
What of Angela Merkel’s vision for Europe, then? She has greatly contributed to a more stable, more secure Union. Merkel has been relatively successful in the titanic task of holding the EU together through some of the most turbulent storms the continent has been faced with since World War II. She has done it because, in a time when the theatrics of politics have tempted many, Merkel has stayed true to her rationality and her pragmatism. However, when the borders of “what is possible” are not questioned, the political becomes the acritical outcome of the technocratic process, rather than its epistemological foundation. In other words, Angela Merkel, in the legitimate and arguably necessary pursuit of stability and consensus, has never dared to articulate a truly political vision for Europe’s future. Angela Merkel’s legacy is that of a reliable, capable, dutiful ‘civil-servant-in-chief’, not that of an imaginative political leader.
The views expressed above belong to the author(s).