Germans go to the polls on Sunday to select a new government. The picture is complicated by Germany's multiparty system and indirect electoral process. Essentially, voters face a choice between a centrist coalition built around the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), or a leftist one with the Social Democratic Party at its core.
Fluctuating polls leave the outcome in doubt. One way or the other, though, Chancellor Angela will soon leave the scene. After 16 years in office and nearly 20 at the head of the CDU, Merkel has defined German politics in the 21st century. Her retirement is the end of an era.
We shouldn't mourn that departure. Despite her reassuring demeanor, Merkel was a destabilizing figure. Once celebrated as the substitute "leader of the free world," her combination of grand moralism and parochial interest undermined the liberal ideals she professed.
Merkel's first big mistake came early in her tenure. In 2007, Iceland's banking system broke down under its massive debt burden. Over the following year, the problem spread to Portugal, Italy, Greece, and Spain, creating the demeaning but amusing acronym PIIGS. Banking on their association with the stronger economies of Northern Europe, especially Germany, the PIIGS were able to borrow more money than would otherwise have been possible. But use of the euro made it impossible to devalue their currencies when faced with loans they couldn't repay.
In the end, Germany and other EU members did bail out the PIIGs. But the compromise Merkel helped broker conditioned debt relief on austerity policies that led to increased unemployment, cuts in public services, and political upheaval, including a dramatic revival of far-right and far-left parties.
The problem was not the budget cuts alone. It was that they were imposed with barely a pretense of legitimation by the states on which they were imposed. The EU's greatest weakness is its "democratic deficit" — the sense that major policies are imposed by an unaccountable transnational elite. Merkel's adherence to economic orthodoxy helped remove any lingering doubts that this impression was accurate.
Merkel's conduct in the EU debt crisis was popular with domestic audiences, where she was seen as protecting the German economy from profligate neighbors. Her next big error was more controversial.
In August 2015, Merkel rejected Germans' historic skepticism of mass immigration and announced that Germany would accept large numbers of asylum seekers already streaming into Europe. These migrants were ostensibly fleeing the Syrian civil war, but in fact drawn from all over the Middle East and North Africa. "Wir schaffen das" — we can do it, Merkel famously announced.
Over the following four years, Germany accepted an unprecedented 1.7 million asylum seekers. It wasn't the total disaster some critics predicted, but the results have been mixed. Despite some successes in integration, asylum seekers and other migrants have been prosecuted for high-profile crimes, including widely publicized incidents in Cologne and Freiburg. Large numbers are still unemployed or receiving welfare. According to Politico, refugee-related programs cost Germany more than 300 billion euros each year. They could do it, but at a price.
The reality of Merkel's policy is also more complicated and realistic than her welcoming rhetoric suggests. Many of the refugees were already in Germany or en route when she uttered the famous phrase. There was no easy way to turn them back. Merkel also saw migration as a way to add younger workers to the labor force. Like other European countries, Germany faces a shrinking population with the risk of serious economic consequences.
As political costs mounted, Merkel reintroduced border controls, endorsed tighter enforcement on Europe's Mediterranean coast, and oversaw a deal under which the EU essentially paid Turkey to hold migrants rather than letting them pass through to European destinations. Just in the last months, Germany has resisted attempts to resettle Afghan refugees in Europe.
Even with these mitigating responses, though, the damage was done. The period of massive migration between September 2015 and the Turkey deal in March 2016 galvanized the German right, burnished conservative governments in Hungary and Poland, and generated images that were used in campaigns for Brexit and the election of Donald Trump. As in the debt crisis, Merkel's ostensibly principled stand helped discredit the principles themselves.
That's not to say Merkel is completely inflexible. German-American political theorist Yascha Mounk points out that Merkel long resisted efforts to sanction Hungary's ruling Fidesz party, which remained a member of the EU-wide association of Christian Democratic parties until earlier this year. Merkel has also maintained cooperative relations with Moscow. Despite American opposition, her government persisted in the Nordstream 2 pipeline project, which will give Russia powerful influence over Germany's natural gas supply.
Reliance on Russian gas is just one aspect of Merkel's failed energy policy, moreover. Following the Fukushima nuclear accident in 2010, Merkel's government developed plans for a comprehensive Energiewende (energy transition). In addition to closing Germany's 19 nuclear reactors by 2022, the plan called for the phased replacement of its coal-fired power plants by 2038.
The problem was that simultaneous abandonment of nuclear and coal left few alternatives. In addition to Russian gas, Germany has invested heavily in wind turbines and other alternative fuels that have proved ineffective and unpopular. Once again, refusing to confront tradeoffs or the possibility of unintended consequences led to counterproductive outcomes.
Even Merkel's own party has suffered from her special brand of moralism. Although she has been campaigning for CDU leader Armin Laschet, Merkel sat out the leadership elections in April. Her refusal either to support the uninspiring Laschet or clearly back his more charismatic rival Markus Söder left the party demoralized and divided. Recent polls show the CDU receiving only about 20 percent of the vote, its worst showing since the beginning of the modern German republic after World War II.
Honesty requires me to acknowledge that my assessment is not broadly shared in Germany. Despite setbacks associated with the pandemic, Merkel remains the country's most popular political figure. Famous around the world for grand pronouncements, Merkel was a canny steward of her political standing at home. Above all, that's meant cultivating support in the business community, which backs Merkel's engagement with Russia and China, another challenger to Western liberalism with which Germany has close economic ties.
Some Germans will mourn, then, when Mutti leaves the scene. The rest of us, though, have no reason for regret. Merkel promised to uphold liberalism, democracy, and European cooperation. She left them weaker in almost everything she touched.