How The 2010s Were Angela Merkel's Decade | WGLT

How The 2010s Were Angela Merkel's Decade

Dec 26, 2019
Originally published on December 26, 2019 6:26 am

German Chancellor Angela Merkel is not known for being a passionate speaker, touting big ideas or earnest promises. Her personality type would not make her a great candidate for, say, president of the United States.

"She's not a charismatic type," says Stefan Kornelius, who has written a biography about Merkel. But "[German] people don't want to have the visionary thing and being led with flying flags. They just want to have predictability and the guarantee that things are calm and under control, and she gave that guarantee for pretty much all of her rule."

Germany's chancellor since 2005, Merkel says she won't seek reelection in 2021 and has already stepped down as leader of the center-right Christian Democratic Union Party. Looking back at her long tenure, the past decade has particularly tested her leadership over the European Union's largest economy. It kicked off with a global financial crisis that threatened to break up the EU. Then by mid-decade, Russia's intervention in Ukraine and a historic influx of refugees, and later, a surge of populist movements across Europe further challenged the continent's cohesion.

"She kept a steady hand during a tumultuous time," Kornelius says.

And her approach is unlike most other democratic leaders.

The 65-year-old chancellor "is probably the least alpha-male type of policymaker that you can imagine," says Josef Janning, a former senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. "She was not so much after providing strong personal leadership, but rather providing a working environment, which helps to articulate positions, negotiate and arrive at some common compromise outcome."

This pragmatic deal-making was crucial at the start of the decade, as the American financial crisis was spreading globally, threatening to divide the eurozone. Greece's economy was falling apart, with high unemployment and violent street protests in Athens. By 2015, the country had already been bailed out twice — to the tune of a quarter of a trillion dollars — and was once again on the verge of bringing back its old currency and breaking with the eurozone.

Merkel feared that if one EU member left, others would follow. The EU bailed Greece out once again, the bloc held together and Greece exited the bailout program three years later, able to borrow normally again after years of austerity measures.

Over the years, "Merkel's approach was to do whatever it takes to prevent the EU from falling apart," says Janning. "She has been remarkably successful because there were severe crises, there were profound challenges to the integrity and to the coherence of the EU and it survived."

Among the tough decisions she's made in the past decade: phasing out nuclear power after Japan's Fukushima disaster, standing up to Russian President Vladimir Putin when he annexed Crimea from Ukraine and allowing more than a million war refugees from Syria to resettle in Germany.

Janning says many of these decisions didn't go far enough. After the Greek debt crisis, Merkel could have pushed to strengthen EU fiscal authority over member states, but she didn't. In the wake of the refugee crisis, she could have fought harder to establish a common EU immigration and asylum legislation, agency and border police, but that eluded her as well.

Constanze Stelzenmüller, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, says Merkel's hallmark style of solving problems through compromise — always choosing a middle path — may have prevented lasting solutions to Europe's biggest problems.

"Merkel, like [President Bill] Clinton — and I think in this she imitated Clinton — espoused a kind of technocratic, 'there is no alternative' centrism that took the belief, the identity factor out of politics or rather pushed it to the sidelines where it was taken up by the extremists," she says.

Those extremists are gaining ground, Stelzenmüller warns. The right-wing populist Alternative for Germany party has become a powerful force in much of the country, while other EU countries are now run by populist leaders who see Merkel's leadership as outdated.

"They reject this ultra-pragmatic bargaining approach and rather create disruption by breaking with the rules," says Janning, "breaking with the establishment, breaking with the institutions of the parties in their own countries, and rather concentrating a lot of power on themselves and on a leadership circle around them."

And these threats to democracy are precisely why Merkel has been a crucial leader in the past decade, argues Kornelius.

"She will stand as an example on how democracy lives from compromise, from finding the middle ground, from not overreaching, and definitely not from arousing people wherever you stand and go," he says.

Merkel's biggest achievement, Kornelius says, "might be that she keeps up the flame of a liberal-minded democracy at a time when the foundation of our democracies are shaken, when we are questioning whether this kind of rule, this kind of government, is the right one for us; while populists all over the world rise and where the West as a unifying ideal of so many countries with the U.S. at its helm is collapsing."

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NOEL KING, HOST:

The 2010s in Europe started with a financial crisis that threatened to break up the European Union. In the middle of the decade, more than a million migrants from the Middle East arrived. And at the end of the decade, populist movements are now threatening European cohesion. Through it all, there has been Germany's chancellor - Angela Merkel. But Merkel says she won't seek re-election in 2021, and she's already stepped down as leader of her Christian Democratic party. NPR's Rob Schmitz has this review of Merkel's decade.

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: Angela Merkel is not a passionate speaker. She doesn't arouse the public with big ideas or big promises. Her personality probably wouldn't make her a great candidate for, say, president of the U.S. But, says Merkel biographer Stefan Kornelius, her quiet, technocratic style through the past decade has been a perfect fit for Germany.

STEFAN KORNELIUS: People don't want to have the sort of visionary thing and being led with flying flags. They just want to have predictability and the guarantee that things are calm and under control. And she gave that guarantee for pretty much all of her rule.

SCHMITZ: And she's done so through a decade when Europe's cohesion was constantly under threat.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHANCELLOR ANGELA MERKEL: (Speaking German).

SCHMITZ: July 2015 - Merkel takes the podium at the Bundestag, Germany's parliament, and argues for a third financial bailout for Greece. The decade began with the financial crisis that impacted the EU. The economy of Greece falls apart, unemployment is on the rise, and violent protests are on the streets of Athens. By the summer of 2015, Greece is on the verge of leaving the Eurozone.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MERKEL: (Speaking German).

(APPLAUSE)

SCHMITZ: Merkel tells her government they cannot sit back and watch. And they didn't. Greece was bailed out, and the EU held together.

JOSEF JANNING: You know, Merkel's approach was to do whatever it takes to prevent the EU from falling apart.

SCHMITZ: Josef Janning is a former senior policy fellow of the European Council on Foreign Relations.

JANNING: She has been remarkably successful - because there were severe crises; there were profound challenges to the integrity and the coherence of the EU. And it survived.

SCHMITZ: Among the tough decisions she's made in the past decade - phasing out nuclear power after the Fukushima disaster, standing up to Putin when Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine and allowing around a million war refugees to resettle in Germany.

However, Janning says, many of these decisions did not go far enough. He says after the Greek debt crisis, Merkel could have fought to strengthen the EU's fiscal authority over member states, but she didn't. In the wake of the refugee crisis, she could have worked harder to achieve a common EU immigration and asylum legislation, agency and border police to manage the issue. But that eluded her as well. Senior Brookings fellow Constanze Stelzenmuller says Merkel's hallmark style of solving problems through compromise, always choosing a middle path, may have prevented lasting solutions to Europe's biggest problems.

CONSTANZE STELZENMULLER: Merkel, like Clinton - and I think in this, she imitated Clinton - espoused a kind of technocratic, there-is-no-alternative centrism that took the belief and the identity factor out of politics - or rather, pushed it to the sidelines, where it was taken up by the extremists.

SCHMITZ: And those extremists, says Stelzenmuller, have gained ground during a leadership that has put compromise ahead of ideology. The right-wing AfD party is more popular than ever in Germany. And now, at the end of the decade, many EU countries are run by populist leaders who see Merkel's leadership as outdated, says Josef Janning.

JANNING: They reject this ultra-pragmatic bargaining approach and rather create disruption by breaking with the rules, breaking with the establishment, breaking with the institutions of the parties in their own countries and rather concentrating a lot of power on themselves and on a leadership circle around them.

SCHMITZ: And these threats to democracy are precisely why Merkel has been a crucial leader in the past decade, argues Stefan Kornelius.

KORNELIUS: She will stand as an example on how democracy lives from compromise, from finding the middle ground, from not overreaching and definitely not from arousing people wherever you step and go.

SCHMITZ: Kornelius says Merkel has kept alight the flame of liberal democracy during a decade when the foundation of democracy was shaken, when populists were on the rise and when the West, as a unifying ideal with the U.S. at its helm, was collapsing.

Rob Schmitz, NPR News, Berlin.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.