Argument

Angela Merkel Is Back

As Germany takes over the EU presidency, the country’s chancellor has an opportunity to tackle some unfinished business.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel wears a face mask with the logo of Germany’s EU presidency as she leaves the German Federal Council after a speech in Berlin on July 3.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel wears a face mask with the logo of Germany’s EU presidency as she leaves the German Federal Council after a speech in Berlin on July 3. John Macdougall/AFP/Getty Images

Everyone deserves a second chance, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel. After 15 years in office, she seems ready to tackle some unfinished business before stepping down next year. And Germany’s presidency of the Council of the European Union, which started on July 1 and will last six months, gives Merkel the chance to do so, particularly when it comes to improving her country’s tepid performance on curbing climate change, going digital, and promoting overall European unity.

It has been several years since the idea of German leadership was popular among its allies and past enemies alike. The country had bounced back relatively well from the 2008 financial crisis and was recognized for its adoption of renewable energy. Admiration for Germany grew, perhaps hitting a brief peak in 2015 thanks to its handling of that year’s refugee crisis, but since the last federal election in 2017, it had become apparent that Merkel and her country’s trademark policies were losing their shine.

Always governing from the middle in partnership with the center-left Social Democrats, Merkel left her country’s conservatives frustrated while also holding back on progressives’ ambitions for Eurobonds and tougher environmental regulations on industry. Meanwhile, Germany’s pursuit of what it called noble self-interest—whether it be the climate, innovation, or EU crisis management—had to some degree backfired and threatened EU solidarity.

But in recent months, Germany seems to have taken up the leadership mantle once more. Its handling of the coronavirus pandemic has thus far been exemplary. Germany has been lauded for its testing capacity and a new contact-tracing app, which have kept demands on its health system in check and its mortality rate relatively low. In turn, Merkel and Germany are poised to emerge stronger than before, which offers an opportunity for them to course-correct on key challenges.

Early in her tenure, Merkel was dubbed the “climate chancellor.” She has been a strong advocate for preventing climate change and has long pressured other countries to cut carbon emissions. For example, as the host in 2007 of the G-8, Merkel was able to persuade fellow leaders to agree to make substantial cuts to emissions. But it is hard to cajole others to do the hard work when you aren’t meeting your own climate goals. Merkel’s zeal to quickly wean Germany off nuclear power, for example, might have made her country a trendsetter, but it also resulted in a situation where Europe’s largest economy has come to rely heavily on coal as the expansion of renewable energy has stalled.

The country eventually came clean in 2018 and admitted that it would not reach its 2020 goal of cutting carbon emissions by 40 percent compared to 1990 levels. To get back on track, the German parliament passed a $60 billion package of measures last fall to reduce emissions by 55 percent of 1990 levels by 2030. It was a smart move; according to a YouGov poll, 62 percent of Germans would like their government to specifically support environment and climate-friendly technologies and companies in its post-pandemic economic recovery program. Merkel is now charging ahead and has endorsed Brussels’s ambitious European Green Deal—which calls for no net emissions of greenhouse gases by 2050—as part of Germany’s EU presidency.

Another opportunity for Merkel and Germany to regain their footing as leaders is through the push for European digital sovereignty from foreign tech giants. In 2014, the German government launched a three-year-long “Digital Agenda” to accompany economic and innovation policy. The agenda outlined goals for increased broadband delivery, educational opportunities in the IT sector, and secure networks. Yet Germany ranks well behind its European peers when it comes to digital public services; according to data collected in 2019, Germany ranks only 21st within what was then the 28-member EU. It lacks national champions in new technology sectors, and it has been slow to expand broadband access to follow through on its Digital Agenda.

But even as some commercial and private entities are waiting for better 4G service, the German government is already deliberating on how to competitively roll out 5G without compromising on security. That push can be tied to the EU’s quest for digital sovereignty, and it can be extended to other e-government initiatives and cybersecurity. One potential program is Gaia-X, a Franco-German foray into cloud computing to create a platform not dependent on American or Chinese tech players. Germany may have received poor marks for digital transformation so far, but it can turn the corner during its EU presidency as it maps out plans for the EU to remain relevant while protecting data privacy.

Germany has always been careful to operate within the framework of the EU to ease its neighbors’ apprehensions about German power. It was handed an opportunity to guide the bloc in the last decade as the EU faced multiple crises, ranging from sovereign debt to migration. Although Germany realized it needed to salvage the eurozone (and many praised Merkel for her humanitarian response in the face of massive migration flows), its approach caused division and strengthened populist parties within the EU.

Germany’s adherence to austerity and balanced budgets alienated fellow member states, and its desire for migration quotas was met with resentment in Hungary and Poland. In time for Germany’s EU presidency, the country has had a change of heart on both. Together with French President Emmanuel Macron, Merkel is crafting a coronavirus bond program, which would allow for the pooling of national debt. Such measures were previously anathema to Berlin. Germany has also taken a conciliatory tone toward partners regarding mandatory allocation programs for migrants and is concentrating on better management of the EU’s external borders.

Germany, and particularly Merkel, is back in a leadership position. The crisis-tested chancellor has navigated Germany through the pandemic so far and will now do the same for Europe. In addition to the immediate need for economic recovery, Merkel wants to make Europe resilient in the face of climate change and digital transformation. It is ironic that Germany’s EU agenda lists issue areas that Germany cannot claim to have performed well in, but accepting mistakes is a feature of good leadership. Merkel has another shot to improve Germany’s record, this time keeping EU solidarity in mind.

Sudha David-Wilp is a senior trans-Atlantic fellow and deputy director of the Berlin office of the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

Elisabeth Winter is a program assistant at the German Marshall Fund's Berlin office.

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