A bimonthly magazine on international affairs, edited in Germany's capital

Close Up: Angela Merkel


Germany, along with the rest of the world, seems surprised by the principled stance Angela Merkel has taken in the refugee crisis. Looking over her record, however, the German Chancellor has never shied from putting her values on the line.


Artwork: Dominik Herrmann

When Angela Merkel became Chancellor of Germany ten years ago she set herself three goals. One was to repair the transatlantic relationship. The second was to reach out to Poland and other Central European neighbors. The third was to stop pandering to President Vladimir Putin, whom her predecessor, Gerhard Schröder of the Social Democrats (SPD), had called an “impeccable democrat” (“ein lupenreiner Demokrat”).

Merkel scored well in all three despite having to share power with the Social Democrats, whose foreign policy legacy she inherited. She worked hard to regain some equilibrium between Berlin and Washington. The German public was not necessarily delighted with her courting a Republican president, but it was necessary: NATO had almost been torn asunder by America’s invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the ensuing German, French, and Russian axis against the war. I recall the shouting matches between then-US ambassador to NATO Nicholas Burns and his French counterpart, Benoit d’Aboville. They were something else. Merkel, who had little interest in NATO, knew full well what the Alliance stood for: America’s security guarantee to Germany and the rest of Europe.

Merkel was no pushover when it came to dealing with President George W. Bush. She did not agree with him on his botched invasion of Iraq, the use of torture, or the opening of the Guantanamo Bay detention center.  And she told him so. This was not about endearing herself to the German public, which had no truck with that administration – for Merkel, torture, especially practiced in a country that preached human rights to others, was unacceptable.

With Poland, Merkel managed stoically to put relations with Warsaw and Berlin on an even keel during a time when the nationalist, conservative Kaczynski twins were in power – Lech in the President’s office in Nowy Swiat and Jaroslaw in the Chancellery on Aleje Ujazdowskie.  Both held strong anti-German views that were exacerbated by Schröder’s decision to build the Nord Stream pipeline, which would allow Russia send its gas to Europe via the Baltic Sea. The idea was that Russia would reduce its dependence on Ukraine as its main transit route for Russian gas exports.  The Poles thought the deal was a stich-up between Berlin and Moscow, done behind Warsaw’s back.

Merkel persevered with her Polish counterparts, winning respect for supporting Poland against Russia when the Kremlin imposed a ban on some Polish meat products. Putin had his own agenda for the embargo: he wanted to test EU solidarity. Poland, which had joined the EU in 2004, was a test case. But Merkel was not going to get involved in any kind of contest. She stuck up for Poland, even though several of the old EU member states had little time for what they regarded as a new upstart member.

Taking Flak

Merkel had a different view. She was not prepared to have Russia perform its usual act, playing one EU member state against the other.  Merkel’s stance meant that plans to update the EU-Russia Partnership and Cooperation Agreement, which Russia really wanted, were put on hold.  Merkel took a lot of flak for that, not least from the economic and political elites in Germany. But she took the risk. The principle of EU solidarity was at stake; she was not going to sacrifice that to Putin’s divide-and-conquer policies.

Once Donald Tusk, leader of the center-right Civil Platform, became Polish prime minister in 2007, relations between Warsaw and Berlin blossomed. It is hard to believe, but trade between Germany and Poland is more significant today than trade between Germany and Russia, and  opinion polls  show that a trust between the two countries has risen.

Merkel also made the defense of human rights in Russia and China a hallmark of her first term.  Her first visit to Moscow as Chancellor in January 2006 was remarkable. She met human rights activists in the German embassy, something that Schröder never dared to do. That encounter with civil society activists took place only hours after her talks with Putin in the Kremlin. There, Putin had given Merkel a present: a black-and-white toy dog.  Some show of statesmanship, given that Merkel does not like dogs.  She also became the first German leader to meet the Dalai Lama, and in the Chancellery at that. Beijing threatened all sorts of retaliatory measures, including canceling trade and business contracts; not one contract was cancelled.

All in all, Merkel’s first term was about Germany finding its way back into the transatlantic relationship again, and about taking a critical assessment of Russia, which shouldn’t be underestimated. Merkel is probably one of the few – in fact, probably the only German chancellor – who took a more ambivalent view of Russia’s leaders. This carried risks: most notably, it meant questioning the value of Ostpolitik in the post-Cold War era.

Merkel’s first term was also about establishing her position within   the European Union and building relationships with her EU counterparts. Her stint in the chair of the EU’s rotating presidency, which coincided with Germany heading the G8 in 2007, showed a politician enjoying the limelight.

Toward the end of her first term, Merkel was confronted with the global financial crisis. Germany weathered it, but the global crisis showed the new face of globalization – and  a Merkel who was willing to take risks during her second term just as she did during her first term.

And what a term it turned out to be!

In coalition with the Free Democrats (FDP), who were supposedly pro-market, pro-tax reform, and pro-reducing the role of the state, Merkel’s second coalition missed many chances to push Germany toward a more flexible country. The Free Democrats were impossible partners, always bickering, always insecure, always looking to score points.

While the coalition squabbled, two events demonstrated that Merkel was prepared to take big risks. One was her reaction to the Fukushima nuclear disaster that happened on March 11, 2011. The other was NATO’s bombing campaign in Libya, which began on March 19, 2011.

I will not forget Merkel’s reaction to the Fukushima catastrophe.  “Everything has changed,” she said on March 14. She announced a moratorium, suspending plans to prolong the life of the country’s nuclear power stations. “During the moratorium, we will examine how we can accelerate the road to the age of renewable energy,” Merkel added. Nuclear power was then supplying 23 percent of Germany’s electricity.

On May 23, the government agreed to shut down all nuclear power plans by 2022. What a change of heart; just the previous year, Merkel had overturned a decision by Schröder’s government, which was in coalition with the Greens, to end all nuclear power that same year. Now she got firmly behind that goal too.

Merkel’s decision was the first of her two huge tactical and strategic mistakes that has had a huge impact on Germany and Europe.

It was a tactical mistake because of the voters in the federal state of Baden-Württemberg, who were about to go to the polls in a regional election in which the Greens were poised to dethrone the Christian Democrats, the party that had ruled Germany’s economic engine for over three decades. The voters were not going to be fobbed off with Merkel’s about-face on nuclear power. The Greens were swept into power.

Strategically it was a mistake because Merkel had made no plans for the day after. She had not consulted her own party. She had not discussed the issue with German industry.  She had not informed Brussels. And she did not inform her neighbors, particularly nuclear-dependent France. This was Merkel the unilateralist. Her party was furious. German industry was furious. Merkel held her own.

Her decision carried enormous risks. Merkel alienated the heavy-industry and energy lobbies. She alienated her Christian Democratic party, which was generally pro-nuclear. She alienated the opposition Social Democrats, which had close connections with this branch of industry.

In short, Merkel’s risky decision was the beginning of the end of the big industrial elites that had emerged after 1945.  Those elites were grouped around energy – gas, nuclear power, and coal. Yes, those sectors were slowly adapting to EU competition legislation that demanded they open their grids to third-party access. But these big energy companies – RWE, E-ON, or Ruhrgas (the shadow of which E-ON recently guzzled) – had developed an umbilical relationship with successive German governments. In one sweep, Merkel’s decision to end nuclear power was the catalyst that was to change German industry. Some critics accused the chancellor of de-industrializing Germany; Germany’s export profile puts paid to that argument. Merkel ended nuclear power because of Fukushima.  The catastrophe shook her. The trained physicist and former environment minister no longer believed in nuclear power as a safe source of energy.

She put Norbert Röttgen, her environment minister, in charge of overseeing the Energiewende. The enormity of the challenge was completely underestimated. It did not help that Röttgen was too focused on his own constituency in North-Rhine Westphalia to take the Energiewende seriously. In 2012 Merkel put Peter Altmaier, one of her highly trusted colleagues, in charge to make the Energiewende happen. It was not to be the first or last time he’d be called upon by Merkel to take over a mess.

Possibly Right, But in the Wrong Company

Days after Fukushima, Merkel was confronted with a major geo-strategic decision: Libya. Should Germany support a United Nations Security Council resolution calling for a no-flight zone over Libya and authorizing military support for the protection of Libyan civilians?

It coincided with a diplomatic coup for Berlin. After an intense lobbying effort, Germany had taken one of the temporary seats on the UN Security Council.  But that did not stop Merkel from abstaining from the no-fly zone. At the time, some commentators said it was then-FDP foreign minister Guido Westerwelle who persuaded her to abstain. At the end of the day, however, it was Merkel who made the decision. It is hard to believe that she did not consider the fall-out, since Russia and China also abstained.

Merkel took a lot of criticism for her decision – from the Americans, from her own party, from the opposition Social Democrats, and from some of her European allies, as if they had all rushed to join the NATO mission (whose mandate was stretched, to say the least; R2P – the responsibility to protect – mutated into regime change, something Putin has not forgotten that).

What drove Merkel to make this decision? Opportunism (the mood in Germany was ambiguous on Libya)? Conviction?  A sense that  the NATO mission was not going to succeed? She only had to look at how the US coalition failed to follow up their invasion of Iraq (and Afghanistan) with a systematic state-building effort, one thing that the EU and the US are very, very bad at doing. Iraq, Afghanistan, and nearer to home, Bosnia and Herzegovina, as well as Kosovo, are bad examples of the West’s ability to rebuild states. The only two successful examples are Germany and Japan after 1945.

Merkel’s third term has been dominated by the euro crisis, Greece’s deep financial woes, Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March 2014 and its subsequent invasion of Eastern Ukraine, and the refugee crisis.

Each of these crises was a great opportunity for the EU to demonstrate its ability to respond. It failed to do so. It was instead left up to Merkel.  Germany is shouldering a big responsibility for problems that should have been the remit of the EU’s foreign, security, and defense policy, which is almost in tatters – paradoxically at a time when Germany needs more Europe, and certainly no thanks to Germany.

Not in the Mood For a Fudge

Greece would not have introduced such stringent reforms had it not been for Merkel and finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble. The European Commission should have been the institution that led these reforms. But Berlin had little confidence in Brussels to do just that. Being Europe’s paymaster, the German government was in no mood for fudging over Greece, even if its policies have been criticized by those who believe such tough measures would not lead to growth. (Ireland has proved otherwise.) Berlin’s agenda was not only about cutting back on a bloated and inefficient public sector: its strategy was to introduce good governance, to build strong state institutions, to create a climate of transparency instead of perpetuating a culture of corruption and clientelism. This saga is far from over.

Merkel also had to take on the Ukraine crisis.

The EU would have failed to deliver on imposing sanctions on Russia had it not been for Merkel.  Recall that several of the member states believed that Germany was the weak link in pushing for sanctions because of its very close political, economic, and personal ties with Russian elites, particularly Putin and his circle

Merkel proved them wrong. It was she who stiffened the EU’s backbone when it came to introducing sanctions. It was she who ignored suggestions from those German diplomats who still belong to the Ostpolitik school that it would be better to have Russia invited to the G8 meetings instead excluded as she preferred. Merkel stood her ground. One veteran and former German diplomat tried to advise Merkel to change her mind: “If we go to Sochi [the venue for the G8 summit] we can all agree to speak our minds and tell Putin what we really think,” the diplomat told me. Merkel had her own views:  canceling the G8 meeting in Sochi would hurt Russian pride.

It is hard to underestimate the immense pressure poured on Merkel by Germany’s eastern trade lobby (the Ost-Ausschuss), by Schröder, by Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier (who was Schröder’s chief of staff when the former was Chancellor), by those who have a hankering for the old days of Ostpolitik, and by a wave of pro-Russian German politicians, consultants, and advisors.  But Merkel has stuck to her policy: no lifting of sanctions until the Minsk II agreement is fully implemented.

With no respite to the troubles besetting Europe, Merkel has now taken on the refugee crisis.

Because the EU has been so abysmal at anticipating crises – worse, at allowing them to deepen – it has fallen to Merkel to prevent the implosion of the EU.  That is what is at stake.  As she said during a press conference, “if Europe fails on the question of refugees, its close connection with universal civil rights will be destroyed.”

Merkel’s decision to open the borders was not based on tactics. Look at the criticism from within her conservative bloc, not to mention the threats from Horst Seehofer, leader of the CDU’s Bavarian-based sister-party Christian Social Union (CSU).  Seeking to shore up his party’s popularity, Seehofer threatened Merkel with leaving the coalition. Dream on, Horst! Merkel can survive without the CSU. The Social Democrats are not going to jump ship.  There is as yet no Merkel successor looming in their ranks, nor in the CDU’s. And whatever the commentators say, the Merkel era is not over. If anyone thinks that her conservative bloc’s falling ratings – from over 41 percent to about 38 percent – present a threat to her leadership, get real.

However, to give her critics some credit, Merkel’s open-door policy was ill thought out. There was no strategy in place. Germany was not prepared for such an influx, and had no answer to the question of how so many tens of thousands could be integrated. Once again, the German chancellor did not inform her EU partners. It was as unilateral a decision as her phasing out nuclear power. Why?

“Compassion,” said Elmar Brok, a prominent Christian Democrat and chairman of the European Parliament’s foreign affairs committee. “And there was also the legal imperative to provide refuge.”
Merkel’s response has thrust Germany into an ambiguous leadership role. Having welcomed refugees, Berlin now has no option but to take the lead inside the EU in establishing a sustainable policy.

But the stakes are much higher: it is about the future of the European Union. In her ten years in office, Merkel continued a trend first started by Schröder. It was a gradual but perceptible shift away from the communitaire policy so long pursued and defended by Helmut Kohl, a shift to an inter-governmental approach toward EU decision-making. This re-nationalization of policies have weakened the institutions in Brussels, whose legitimacy has often been questioned.  But then personalities play such a big role in the Commission and the Council. When was the last time the Commission had a charismatic, visionary president?

For some time Merkel was relaxed about her inter-governmental approach. She knew Brussels was not going to be tough with Putin, but she could rally enough support from Poland, the Baltic States, the Nordic countries, and some others to push through the sanctions policy. She used the same method to insist on Greece tackling its intrinsic problems,  something  the Commission was not prepared to do.

But in the refugee crisis the inter-governmental approach has not worked. The member states rebelled against Merkel’s open-door policy. They balked at the idea of taking in large numbers of refugees. They threw away any notion of solidarity, this convenient slogan that any member state can invoke (as Poland did during the Russian meat embargo), expecting the Commission and the member states to respond. They have not understood that the refugee crisis represents the failure of Europe’s crisis management policies, its development aid policies, and its overall foreign policy toward its neighborhoods. All 28 members states are culpable.

Merkel’s pleas for solidarity, needless to say, did not find traction. The little support that there was for Europe’s most important leader, who put EU values and its sense of solidarity to the test, exposed the shallowness of the EU.

Merkel has room to maneuver, despite what her critics say. She has Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the EU Commission, on her side. He understands the dismal state Europe is in; just read his “State of the European Union” address. Merkel, too, knows what is happening.  Both leaders have a chance to bully the member states into realizing that the comfort zone has evaporated. That the refugee crisis is about globalization. That the digital age is coming with an assault that will shake us. That the power of  social media will only increase. That climate change will lead to more displacement and more refuges. That the need to understand that “fortress Europe” is a contradiction in terms in the 21st century, and that it would run counter to Europe’s ambitions – if indeed it has any – to get onto the global stage.

Merkel’s eleventh year in power is about to begin.