Austerity, far right, Uyghurs: the ambivalent legacy of Merkel



Berlin (AFP)

Crises have the gift of destroying leaders. Not Chancellor Angela Merkel.

During 16 years in power, the veteran has traversed Germany through the financial turmoil of 2008 and the debt crisis that followed in the eurozone, the influx of refugees of 2015 and now the coronavirus pandemic.

“Merkel has known more global crises than Macron, Johnson and Trump combined,” notes the weekly Zeit, referring to her contemporaries in France, Great Britain and the United States.

Although widely admired at home and abroad, even in the final weeks of her reign, the legacy she leaves behind is marked by both light and shadows.

– Party in crisis –

Merkel won a narrow victory in 2005 over incumbent Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder of the Social Democrats, putting her conservative CDU-CSU alliance on the path to power for more than a decade.

At the height of her popularity, Merkel led the Tories to a landslide victory with 41.5% of the vote in 2013. Thanks to her track record, she was able to end a crucial televised election debate that year with the simple words of closing “you know me”. .

But his exit from politics was marred by a succession crisis in his party.

Merkel’s initial choices to succeed her, first Ursula von der Leyen and later Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, had to bury their ambitions on various missteps long before the start of the election year.

His party’s current chancellor candidate Armin Laschet lags behind social democratic rival Olaf Scholz, with the conservative CDU-CSU poised to fall below its worst score of well under 30% in Sunday’s elections.

– Budget dogma –

Once dismissed as the sick man of Europe, Germany has consolidated its reputation as the economic engine of the bloc under Merkel’s watch.

Unemployment is at an all time high – 5.7% in July even as the economy rebounds from the impact of the pandemic.

The budget surpluses recorded from 2012 also allowed the aging nation to repay a huge mountain of debt, giving it a buffer against the impact of the health emergency.

But Germany’s fixation on balanced budgets has left a bitter taste, especially among southern Europeans battered by the eurozone’s financial and debt crises.

Merkel appeared to ignore calls for debt relief as Greece was on the brink of economic collapse, sparking huge protests across the country.

It was the Covid-19 that forced Chancellor Merkel to make a drastic about-face on her resistance to the pooling of European debt Markus Schreiber POOL / AFP

Although credited with securing huge European bailouts that saved Greece from leaving the euro, it came at a high social cost, including massive job losses.

But it was the Covid-19 that forced it to make a drastic about-face on its resistance to the pooling of European debt.

Instead, Merkel led the € 800 billion ($ 950 billion) EU stimulus fund, which sees the European Commission raising funds by issuing bonds on behalf of the 27 members.

– Chancellor of the climate? –

Merkel took the surprising decision to shut down German nuclear power plants following the Fukushima disaster in 2011, triggering the “Energiewende” – the shift to sustainable energy.

But the sudden change in policy has forced greater reliance on coal power during the transition period as the country struggles to increase wind power or biomass production.

Merkel’s government has been accused of protecting Germany’s vital auto industry by watering down emissions regulation reforms, and its refusal to advance the 2038 deadline to shut down coal-fired power has also angered environmental activists.

Merkel's refusal to advance 2038 deadline to stop coal angered environmentalists
Merkel’s refusal to advance 2038 deadline to stop coal angered environmentalists Oliver Berg SWIMMING POOL / AFP / File

In a humiliating move against the government’s flagship plan for environmental protection, Germany’s highest court in April ordered Merkel’s coalition to draw up an improved plan.

The government then advanced targets to reduce CO2 emissions by 65% ​​by 2030 from 1990 levels, against an earlier target of 55%.

“When I look at the situation, no one can say that we have done enough” for the environment, Merkel admitted in June.

“Time is running out. I can understand the impatience of the young people.”

– As usual ? –

She was praised by human rights activists in 2015 for keeping Germany’s borders open to hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing the war in Syria and Iraq.

But over China’s massive incarceration of Uyghurs in Xinjiang province in the far west, Merkel has been accused of lacking teeth.

All did not go well for Merkel, who in 2015 kept Germany's borders open to hundreds of thousands of refugees
All did not go well for Merkel, who in 2015 kept Germany’s borders open to hundreds of thousands of refugees JENS SCHLUETER AFP / File

Critics say it is crippled by huge economic interests in China.

Likewise, while Merkel has spoken out strongly against Russia over the poisoning and imprisonment of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny, she has stood firm on the completion of a controversial gas pipeline called Nord Stream 2.

The $ 12 billion pipeline under the Baltic Sea is expected to double Russian natural gas shipments to Germany, Europe’s largest economy.

Kiev called it a “dangerous geopolitical weapon”, but Berlin believes the pipeline has a role to play in Germany’s transition from coal to nuclear power.

– Far right, European faults –

The arrival of over a million asylum seekers in Germany has further fractured the political landscape.

Popular anger over the massive influx sent a far-right bloc, the anti-immigration AfD, to parliament in 2017 for the first time since WWII, making it the largest opposition force .

Under Merkel's leadership, Germany solidified its reputation as Europe's economic engine
Under Merkel’s leadership, Germany solidified its reputation as Europe’s economic engine Johannes EISELE AFP / File

It also opened a rift line with the former Eastern Bloc countries, including Hungary and Poland, which opposed the newcomers.

Six years later, the European Union has failed to agree on unified migration policies.

And the return of the Taliban to Afghanistan has raised the specter of a new wave of refugee arrivals in the bloc.


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