The Sunday Magazine

'The Empress of Europe' or 'Frau Nein'? Angela Merkel's complicated legacy

Some see Angela Merkel as the lone guardian of the liberal world order; others view her as the unwitting architect of the populist wave now tearing Europe apart. We examine the reign of Germany's about-to-be-former chancellor with Brookings Institution's Constanze Stelzenmüller.
This past October, Angela Merkel announced she would not be seeking re-election. (Getty Images)

Over the course of her 13 years as chancellor of Germany, Angela Merkel has emerged as a dynamic force on the political world stage. She has been called the "Empress of Europe," and the world's most powerful woman.

However, her legacy will be complicated. Others have vilified her as the "Austerity Chancellor" and the politician whose actions unwittingly gave rise to the growth of populist movements that are dividing Europe.

In October, Merkel announced she would not be seeking re-election as leader of her party, the Christian Democratic Union or as chancellor in the 2021 national election.

"I think she will be missed for her rationality, for her calm," Constanze Stelzenmüller told Michael Enright, host of The Sunday Edition.

Constanze Stelzenmueller is an expert on German, European, and transatlantic foreign and security policy and strategy. (Submitted by Constanze Stelzenmueller)

"I think that if there is one great strength this woman has — and it is one thing that I genuinely do admire — it's that she is not narcissistic and she's not needy. She is doing this because she thinks that the country needed a stabilizing character at the helm."

Some pundits predicted Merkel would not remain in office until 2021. However, Stelzenmüller has a different view.

"The paradox here is that, if anything, this has stabilized her position because it has signaled to everybody that she is planning to remove herself gracefully over time. And her preferred candidate won the contest for party leadership in the December party conference. So as a result, what looked like the prospect of an early snap election has now receded," Stelzenmüller said.

In December, the CDU elected another woman, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, as its new leader, one who will maintain Merkel's centrist-liberal direction for Germany.

Merkel is not without flaws, said Stelzenmüller.

"She stands for a kind of technocratic style of governance that has de-politicized governing, that has suggested to voters that there is only ever one alternative, which is hers," she said, "and that by triangulating her own Christian Democrat Party into the middle of the political spectrum pushed out the Social Democrats against the walls and left room open at the extreme rights for the Alternative for Germany."

Stelzenmüller said it is important to remember that Germany has come a long way since Merkel became chancellor. Germany was still "digesting the aftermath" of the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and she shepherded the country through a great deal of turbulence: the financial crisis of 2008, the Ukraine crisis, the refugee crisis, the Eurozone crisis, the election of Donald Trump, and Brexit.

Merkel was always a fierce defender of a unified Europe. When Greece fell into a financial crisis, there was pressure from some European Union nations to kick the country out of the alliance.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel enters the stage followed by Klaus Schwab, founder and Executive Chairman of the World Economic Forum, at the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2019. (The Associated Press)

"It was the Germans and the German chancellor who, against pressure from the north and the east, said 'No, that's not what the European project is about. We have to keep them in,'" said Stelzenmüller.

However, Merkel's decision to impose strong financial measures on the Greek government won her the monikers of "Austerity Chancellor" and "Frau Nein." Many viewed her management of that crisis as well as her decisions during the migration of Syrian refugees across Europe as triggers for the growth of right-wing politics on the continent.

"It's, I think, incontrovertible that the refugee crisis and the way that it was managed from September 2015 onwards was what helped the Alternative for Germany, a hard-right extremist party, morph from a still very new, very small, Euro-skeptical party run by professors that could barely get above the five per cent parliamentary threshold into a roaring, anti-Islamist, anti-Muslim, xenophobic and, to some degree, actually anti-Semitic party that is still, I think, morphing towards the hard right and contains some genuine neo-Nazi elements," said Stelzenmüller.

At the same time, she said, it was wrong to say that Germany threw open its borders to refugees because the European Union has open borders. Merkel, facing a "damned if you do and damned if you don't" scenario, chose not to close Germany's borders.

The country's biggest challenge came in the way German institutions handled the refugee crisis, according to Stelzenmüller.

"German institutions from the local to the national level struggled, and it was German civil society that rolled up its sleeves and got to work," she said.

Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, left, chairwoman of the German Christian Democratic Union, CDU, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, right, attend a CDU board meeting in Berlin, Germany, Monday, Jan. 28, 2019. (The Associated Press)

While Merkel had good working relationships with presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, the election of Donald Trump presented a challenge. Although there appeared to be tension between the two, Stelzenmüller believes that has been overblown, and that people in Trump's inner circle say the two leaders have had cordial phone conversations and meetings.

"It's also obvious that he's been rude to her," she said, "then again, who hasn't he been rude to?"

Stelzenmüller adds that Trump is justified in his criticism of imbalances in defence spending.

"While he shouldn't treat NATO as a country club where countries are supposed to pay dues to the owner — no, NATO is not Mar-a-Lago — we are sadly deficient in our own defence provisions and that needs to change."

Click "listen" above to hear the interview.