Thu, Nov 08, 2018 - Page 9 News List

Merkel could be remembered as either savior or destroyer

The German chancellor is retiring with a reputation for calm reliability and a lack of vision

By Jon Henley  /  The Guardian

Illustration: Mountain People

German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s approach to a problem, wrote one of her biographers, is “to sit it out.” Rather than entertain grand ideas of a “historic mission” or “strategic vision,” she aims to “solve today’s problems, in a way that ensures she stays in power.”

The German chancellor, once described by Forbes as the world’s most powerful woman, managed that for 13 years. She has been measured, cautious, methodical, pragmatic, sometimes maddeningly non-committal and seemingly always in control.

However, last week, weakened by plummeting polls, an unpopular and ineffective coalition, dire performances in recent state elections and increasingly acrimonious infighting among her center-right alliance, she conceded defeat.

The dignified, matter-of-fact announcement of her coming departure was Merkel all over, as was the orderly two-stage exit she plans, first surrendering her 18-year leadership of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) next month, then stepping down as chancellor in 2021, at the end of her fourth term.

It might not work. The election of a conservative Merkel critic such as Friedrich Merz, the current frontrunner, as the party’s head would see her go before election day, many believe.

Further big losses by the CDU’s coalition partner, the Social Democratic Party, in coming state elections could also mean her government collapses as early as next year.

Whether or not Merkel sees out her last mandate, a battle royal is under way over her legacy. For her defenders, the chancellor is a calm, unflappable, non-ideological consensus builder, who brought stability to her country and the EU in a string of major crises.

She is, they say, a fundamentally decent politician who fought for democratic values; whose civil, level-headed persona represents all that the posturing populists now challenging Europe’s unity in countries like Hungary and Italy — and the one in the White House — do not.

Her critics say that on major policy questions she is indecisive, unknowable and panders to public opinion. They describe her as a tactician, but not a strategist, with no real vision; unwilling and unable to challenge old German orthodoxies or change the political weather.

Perhaps most damningly, they suggest that her analytical, rational, non-partisan and ultimately technocratic style of leadership might, in the end, have actually precipitated the collapse of Europe’s political center and helped pave the way for the populists.

“Politicians have to be effective and credible, and Merkel has been both,” said Constanze Stelzenmuller of the Brookings Institution, who is one of her supporters. “She built relationships of trust — she had a relationship of trust even with [Greek Prime Minister] Alexis Tsipras.”

At the peak of the eurozone crisis, when most of northern Europe wanted the Greek prime minister to be told his country had to leave the common currency, Merkel demurred, Stelzenmuller said, adding that it would have been “a betrayal of the European project. She gains people’s trust because she has clear values.”

Those values are plain, supporters say, in Merkel’s determination to impose sanctions after Russia’s annexation of Crimea, her decision to welcome more than 1 million migrants into Germany in 2015, and her response to US President Donald Trump’s election — she pointedly offered him cooperation “based on the values of democracy, freedom, respect for the law and the dignity of all human beings.”

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