Angela Merkel Has Everything Except a Legacy

The German chancellor has spent 12 years fending off, deterring, and patching up. But in her last term, can she build anything lasting?

German Chancellor Angela Merkel delivers her speech as she attends an electoral meeting in Delbrueck, western Germany, on September 10, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / dpa / Friso Gentsch / Germany OUT        (Photo credit should read FRISO GENTSCH/AFP/Getty Images)
German Chancellor Angela Merkel delivers her speech as she attends an electoral meeting in Delbrueck, western Germany, on September 10, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / dpa / Friso Gentsch / Germany OUT (Photo credit should read FRISO GENTSCH/AFP/Getty Images)

Bragging and grandstanding are definitely not in Angela Merkel’s DNA. The German chancellor has shown remarkable self-restraint on the campaign trail talking about the achievements of her past 12 years in office. Her message is plain and simple: Germany is doing well. The country was spared much of the turmoil the world has seen over the past few years. If voters would like to keep it that way, they should re-elect her.

The message appears to have convinced. The 2017 campaign in Germany lacks much of the excitement and uncertainty of the recent elections in the United States and France. The country seems to have been persuaded by Merkel’s promise of further stability and tranquility. There are no heated arguments about the sustainability of Germany’s much-cherished pension or health care system. Huge challenges for the automotive or digital industry seem to be locked in the boardrooms. Most surprisingly, German voters aren’t losing any sleep over leadership problems within the European Union, reforms of the eurozone, defense spending, dealing with Russia, or an ever more unpredictable Trump administration. The country seems to be at ease with itself and the chancellor. But do such quiet achievements add up to a legacy?

Merkel has been in office for 12 years, and her next term, which she seems poised to secure, looks likely to be her last. Grandstander or not, it would only be natural if she is contemplating her place in history. She understands that her immediate predecessors all delivered trademark policies: Willy Brandt had his Ostpolitik, Helmut Schmidt committed the country to the West at the height of the Cold War, Helmut Kohl will forever be chancellor of German unification, and Gerhard Schröder sacrificed power in order to push through severe economic and social reforms. And Angela Merkel?

So far, Merkel has shown little interest in the legacy thing. Her entourage and the few spin masters working in the chancellery remain focused on the usual day-to-day. There is little résumé building, stocktaking, grand envisioning. Even in the throes of her most tumultuous year, when 1 million refugees came to Germany — undoubtedly her toughest and loneliest moment in government — Merkel didn’t mount much of an effort to explain herself and her decisions. She simply wanted the issue to be solved. (As a result, she now is stuck with dueling caricatures: on the one hand, a kind of Mother Theresa image, on the other, a political leader dangerously destabilizing Europe by not closing its borders.) Afterward, in the wake of Brexit and Donald Trump’s victory, when the New York Times, among others, jumped the legacy gun and declared her the savior of the liberal Western order, Merkel semipublicly voiced her distaste for this verdict. After 12 years, Merkel’s time in office has mainly been defined not by what has happened in Germany, and in Europe more broadly, but what has not. Her legacy as it stands is mostly about fending off problems and solving crises.

These achievements are real enough and owe a great deal to her leadership. The country hasn’t had to endure economic hardship; political extremism is well under control; the modern evil of populism has not been able to set down roots. Despite Brexit, the EU is mostly intact, the common currency after its near-death experience alive and kicking. A war in Eastern Europe over Ukraine’s right to self-determination was not prevented but has been mostly contained. By painstakingly managing refugee issues, from Turkey to Mali, Merkel and the EU are getting a better grip on migration, the century’s preeminent challenge. Without much fanfare, Germany has gained more muscle in international affairs over the past years and is willing to use it politically. This has changed Europe’s balance of power, but despite all historical warning signs Germany has not singled itself out or once again became the bully in the schoolyard. And the West, despite all odds, has not ceased to exist.

But these all raise the question: If she is re-elected again, is there something that Merkel wants to make happen?

What concerns Merkel most is the state of the liberal democratic world. She sees democracies constantly being challenged, either from populists within or the autocratic strongmen who pop up all over the world. To prevent history from repeating itself and Europe from drifting back into nationalism and populism, she wants the EU to be strong and safe. If Europe is doing well economically and offers a credible vision for all in need of identity and belonging, so her thinking goes, this would be the most valuable inheritance she could leave behind. But solving this riddle is difficult: How to give the EU more power without weakening nation-states? How to finally secure the euro without intervening too much in each member’s sovereignty? After all, Europeans, including Merkel, have little desire to transfer more power to Brussels.

But to say that Merkel is interested in addressing such an epochal challenge is not yet to answer how she would go about it. For that, one must consult the rare moments in her dozens of years of public life — most notably a serious of in-depth interviews long before she mounted a leadership challenge against her former mentor, Helmut Kohl — that shed light on her thinking about how politicians can, and can’t, affect history. Central to her beliefs is the assumption that lasting success in politics is hard to come by: You give and take, you win and lose. In political life, exposing yourself too much will only cost you dearly later. By that logic, setting out grandiose goals and thinking in terms of historical achievements will only hurt you, since you’ll be measured against your own expectations. Merkel’s advice would be to speak modestly and cash in only if success is guaranteed.

Her other major conviction is that politics is a slow-moving process that has to be planned and executed carefully, step by step, never too much at a time. Merkel does not believe in grand bargaining or deal-making. She is utterly convinced of the merits of slow, painful, and knowledgeable negotiations, which result in compromise. If a compromise leans only a tiny bit to her side, she’ll take it. Major historical changes are rare and shouldn’t be expected; having seen the Berlin Wall coming down firsthand, she knows how unique those grand moments are.

Early in her chancellorship, after the Lehman Brothers shock and the subsequent financial crisis, Merkel gave us another glimpse into her understanding of how historical reputations are made. In interviews, she confided that her achievements might only be understood in retrospect, by historians who would have a better grip on all the challenges warded off, the calamities that didn’t transpire. Politics as a series of crises, well-managed.

Which brings us to today. When she decided to run for a fourth term, Donald Trump had just been elected president of the United States; Brexit was threatening to unravel the EU; and Marine Le Pen stood a good chance of taking the reins of the French Republic and subsequently finishing off the idea of a united Europe. These were crises indeed, in need of a steady hand, and the chancellor decided that Germany, Europe, and the world would be better off with some more Merkel-style stability. Stepping down at that crucial moment and allowing uncertainty about Germany’s future would have cast a huge shadow over Merkel’s achievements. To secure her legacy, she had to carry on.

History rewarded her by sending her Emmanuel Macron — finally a French president who Merkel viewed as capable of joining her in creating a stable and irreversible European economic and currency zone, strong enough to guarantee prosperity on the continent and fend off any illiberal or free-trade-averse policies from either the Trump White House or a bullying China in the East. If she is re-elected, Merkel’s top priority will be an EU reform agenda, which she wants to implement together with Macron. They are already committed to huge investments in European defense structures, common procurement and development, and joint decision-making processes in foreign policy. They might also aim for a common eurozone budget that is robust enough to be worthy of the name while encouraging reforms to boost economic competitiveness at the periphery of the union. And finally they want to build safety measures for the eurozone to once and for all prevent the currency from tumbling, as it almost did in the crucial years.

But there is no need for Merkel to reinvent herself for that task. Changing EU rules will be a slow-moving, dull process. It will be best done Merkel-style. But after so many years of fending off, deterring, patching up, and holding together, Angela Merkel might finally get a chance to be a chancellor who builds.

Photo credit: FRISO GENTSCH/AFP/Getty Images

Stefan Kornelius, the foreign editor of Germany’s Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper, is the author of the biography "Angela Merkel: The Chancellor and Her World."

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