There were a few months during the darkest days of Donald Trump’s presidency when Angela Merkel looked like the last adult on the world stage. With the US ruled by an extremist, the UK in chaos, India rapidly moving towards autocracy, and Russia and China increasingly repressive, the German prime minister was hailed by many as the “leader of the free world ”.
Now that Merkel is about to retire after 16 years, her heroic image is making many people anxious about what may lie ahead. Will Germany be trumped? Could the country’s role as a defender of democracy on the international stage become a thing of the past?
These questions are based on faulty assumptions. While Merkel deserves to be commended for being a calm, steady, and compassionate leader, she was never the ultimate bulwark between decency and barbarism. And while she genuinely cares about democratic values, the Germany under her leadership has failed to meet her three biggest challenges.
The first challenge came in the wake of the Great Recession, when southern European countries entered a dangerous spiral of debt. Under Merkel’s leadership, the European Union (EU) moved forward in fits and starts as Greeks and Spaniards went through a decade of economic hardship.
With the euro’s structural problems still unresolved, it’s very possible that the next economic downturn will trigger a rerun of the same tragedy.
The second challenge was posed with the rise of authoritarian populists in the heart of Europe. Instead of fighting for significant sanctions, Merkel wavered and even allowed Hungarian Viktor Orbán’s party to continue to be part of the Christian Democratic faction in the European Parliament.
Today, countries like Poland and Hungary can protect each other, vetoing any measures that might curb democratic backlashes. Unable to contain the nascent dictators in its midst, the EU is no longer a club of democracies.
The third challenge came when the civil war in Syria drove millions of people to seek refuge in Europe. Merkel’s words of welcome have earned her admirers all over the world.
In reality, however, the chancellor was quick to do what she could to keep the refugees at bay. Thanks to a series of deals made with autocrats like Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Germany has outsourced its dirty work to make its borders impenetrable.
Three candidates are now vying for succession. Soft-spoken Catholic Armin Laschet, 60, from the Rhineland, represents Merkel’s Christian Democrats. Olaf Scholz, 63, a former mayor of Hamburg, leads the Social Democrats. Annalena Baerbock, 40, a young lawmaker from Hannover, heads the Green Party.
However, despite the obvious differences between their ages, biographies and ideological origins, all three main candidates position themselves, concretely speaking, as forces of continuity.
All three are socially liberal and fiscally responsible. And all three promise to uphold human rights. On the other hand, they are unwilling to spend enough money on the armed forces to make Germany a serious player on the international stage. In a recent debate, the moderates seemed to be desperately looking for some sign of a substantial difference in view between them.
The result is an election campaign that is both confusing and strangely tedious. While voters have little idea who the next prime minister will be or what kind of coalition government might be formed, they seem to agree that none of this will make much of a difference anyway.
The good news about the German election is that it won’t change the country much. The bad news about the German election is the same: it won’t change the country much.
Under Merkel, Germany has not been as ardent a defender of democracy and human rights as most international observers thought. The country deepened its economic ties with China, pushed ahead with a Kremlin-backed pipeline, empowered nascent autocrats in Central Europe, and struck immoral deals with dictators in Turkey.
Whether its next chancellor is Laschet, Annalena or Scholz, the same hypocrisy is likely to characterize Germany after Merkel leaves the scene.
Translation by Clara Allain
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