What do we understand erroneously about the outgoing German chancellor?
As the term of German Chancellor Angela Merkel comes to an end with her announcement that she will resign after Germany’s next federal election to be held on 26th September 2021 – Covid-19 permitting, one might like to take a look back on her reign that started on 22nd November 2005. Much of what we thought we knew about Merkel might no be all that as it appears.
Myth 1: Merkel the Friend of all Refugees
Merkel’s highlight was her refugee policy instigated in 2015. Ever since right-wing populists and adjacent Neo-Nazis despise Angela Merkel calling her the Chancellor of Refugees. At times, they were carrying “Death to Merkel” signs through the streets of Berlin in the belief of an imminent chaos and the looming civil war. Germany’s radical right has always been ready to save their white race.
Germany’s most anti-Semitic, deeply racist and partly Neo-Nazi political parties the AfD continues to blame them for the downfall of the West – in a reminiscence of Nazi ideologues Moeller van den Bruck – the Inventor of Hitler’s Third Reich.
Yet the widely presented thesis that Angela Merkel is the patron saint of asylum seekers might be a somewhat distorted image of Angela Merkel. Still, this image is instrumentalized by Merkel’s even more right-wing opponents and this includes those inside her own political parties, the CDU.
Today, there is the very popular myth that Merkel opened the borders in 2015. Yet, remains clearly nonsense. When hundreds of thousands of refugees came to Germany via the so-called Balkan Route, internal borders inside Europe had been open. This is regulated and customary since German is part of the Schengen Agreement.
This has been the case since 1985. Merkel did not have to open anything as many, if not most, of Europe’s internal borders had been open for decades. Yet, despite these obvious facts, Angela Merkel was and is presented in a humanitarian “I-opened-the-borders” light.
In August 2015, refugees mostly from Syria and Iraq were stuck in Hungary. Slowly, they made their way to Germany on foot via motorways. Hungarian xenophobic and anti-semitic prime minister Viktor Orbán had refugees transported by bus to the Austrian border.
Right-wing Orbán wanted to put pressure on the EU which he deeply detests because the EU reminds him of his anti-democratic activities – often framed as illiberal. Merkel decided to take in the desperate people even though her very own senior officials advised her to close the border – a violation of the Schengen Agreement.
Yet, in reality, not just humanitarian, but also tactical considerations played a role in Angela Merkel’s decision. It was a time of rather brutal TV images about border crossings. Merkel’s tactical move gave her great credibility among Germany’s liberals. Her popularity ratings among Germany’s environmental party “The Greens” shot up. Today, tactician Merkel still benefits from those days. Meanwhile, Angela Merkel remains hated by Germany’s right-wing.
Adding to the myth creation is Merkel’s 2015 rhetoric of, We can do it – a slogan that has its own Wikipedia page. Soon after Angela Merkel’s radiant political gesture, humanity was no longer of great concern – cool pragmatism started to rule the day. Yet, the myth of “the refugee chancellor” lasts as, Angela Merkel is doing everything to keep it alive paying huge electoral dividends among voters in Germany’s center.
Myth 2: The Competitor Killer
Inside Angela Merkel’s political party “CDU”, many very powerful West German men have not forgotten that they have lost their “self-assigned” place at the top of the party to “a woman” from the East – Angela Merkel. Foremost, this applies to right-wing CDU strongman Friedrich Merz who is always ready to bury Merkel. Neoliberal hard-man Merz believes that he has a natural right to the leadership of the party and by inference of Germany. To this day, Merz wants his revenge.
At the beginning of the 1990s, next to Friedrich Merz was also the xenophobic Roland Koch and the right-wingers Christian Wulff and Günther Oettinger. Their little, albeit clandestine team is waiting in the trenches to fight Angela Merkel. Many years ago, they, mistakenly thought that it would have been highly unlikely that Merkel would prevail against them – Angela Merkel did.
Yet, Merkel wasn’t even particularly clever or cunning. Yet, she had a very keen eye on what worked and what didn’t. Working against them, the hard-right boys were prone to hubris and overconfidence.
From that time comes the image of Angela Merkel as party leader with a killer instinct. Merkel had skillfully ousted Merz from his self-assigned post as leader. However, it was not only because of Merkel’s political skill – it was also by coincidences.
At that time, Merkel realized that her opponents were about to overpower her. She conjured up her supporters and a party-internal deal was done in which Merkel was set to become the parliamentarian leader of the CDU after the election victory.
Yet, things turned out rather differently. Surprisingly, a social-democratic (read: liberal) SPD and Green (environmentalists) coalition very narrowly won Germany’s federal election. After that, Merkel did nothing as strongman Merz featured himself as a victim of an internal party intrigue.
Indeed, one of the secrets of Angela Merkel’s success is her ability to handle men. To the outside, it appears as if Angela Merkel is a men-hunter. Germany’s influential weekly Der Spiegel compared Merkel to a black widow spider coldly killing her partners once they had fulfilled their function.
Yet, this is another myth. Merkel doesn’t bully men. Instead, Merkel pulled former Bavarian power broker Stoiber to her side in 2002. In turn, he got rid of Merz. Angela Merkel is a skillful tactician. Yet in a world defined by men, successful and powerful women are made to appear in demonic images such as being a slayer, a killer, a black widow spider murdering her partners in cold blood – a carefully craft myth.
Myth 3: The Climate Rescuer
Dressed in a red jacket on the white background of the arctic in 2007, Angela Merkel examined the effects of global warming in Greenland. Furnished with a PhD in quantum chemistry and holding Germany’s chancellery, Angela Merkel knows the human drama of global warming. Yet, the ice on which Merkel’s reputation as climate chancellor is built on thin ice.
This has been proven time and again throughout Angela Merkel’s political career. She understands the problem but does not do what is necessary. Worse, she also had her ministers take action against climate protection. While Angela Merkel remains excellent in presenting herself on the international stages of the climate negotiations, behind the scene, Angela Merkel blocks ambitious CO2 limits for cars in Brussels, for example.
Worse, the decline of the German solar industry coincides with Merkel’s terms in office. 80,000 jobs were lost in Germany’s environmental industries. Simultaneously, Angela Merkel assured that any discussion on exiting from coal was stalled by herself with the reference to the approximately 20,000 jobs in Germany’s coal industry. In simple mathematics, a rather senseless policy by the physics-PhD Angela Merkel.
On Germany’s coal-phase–out plan which was decided last year and is set to come in 2038, Angela Merkel made a cowardly non-decision that it simply is “too little – too late”. Coal-fired power generation will very soon become unprofitable. Banning such climate-damaging technology only when the economy has had no interest in it, is not exactly courageous. It is an abject failure of Angela Merkel. Yet the myth of being a global warming chancellor continues.
Worse, time and again, it was even said by Merkel’s own government that Germany’s climate targets will not be reached by Germany. The fact that it might still work out is because of the Corona lockdowns which is temporary.
Still, Angela Merkel claims that, environmental policy is an exciting issue. After all, she was Environment Minister under Helmut Kohl. At the time, Merkel was carrying a conservative anti-environmental argument forward which Germany’s very powerful Supreme Court, years after Angela Merkel being minister for the environment and her adjacent chancellorship, tore up.
In a harsh and very public rebuke, Germany’s Supreme Court comprehensively annihilated Angela Merkel’ climate policy. Not to mention that Angela Merkel once wanted to reverse the planned exit from atom-power generation. Merkel framed it exiting the exit. Despite this, the myth of Angela Merkel as a pro-environment chancellor continues.
Myth 4: The Modernizer
In June 2010, the financial crisis was starting to have an effect. €80 billion were to be saved by 2014, in order to comply with the self-imposed debt brake and for the banks that were saved – not the ordinary people – under the heading: Too Big To Jail. Angela Merkel favored the rich – not the poor, as her conservative party has always done.
Some of Merkel’s critics have been talking about her botched-up nuclear phase-out plan. Yet in reality, Angela Merkel’s government (in December 2010) had extended the terms of Germany’s nuclear power plants. All well and good for the non-modernizer Merkel.
But then very suddenly and very unexpectedly came Fukushima. With that, the public mood on nuclear power in Germany tipped even among conservative CDU voters. At the same time, the state election was imminent in Baden-Württemberg. The south-western state of Mercedes-Benz and Porsche was ruled by the conservative Stefan Mappus. Mappus and Merkel never doubted the safety of nuclear power – a dangerous hallucination given Three Miles Island and Chernobyl.
Very quickly, the modernizer Angela Merkel, announced that two outdated nuclear power plants – Neckarwestheim and Philippsburg in Baden-Württemberg – will be shut down. Yet, it failed. Winfried Kretschmann became the first Green State Premier as Mercedes Benz and Porsche continued to operate. Change in the state’s environmental policy came, albeit on a microscopic level, through the Greens and not through the great modernizer Angela Merkel.
Perhaps Merkel family policy is the only political field in which Merkel has really brought a long-term change. Merkel made Ursula von der Leyen a minister. Both fought for the expansion of childcare places as well as, for an increase in parental allowances. Both were designed to make work and family more compatible. The fact that Merkel considered the conservative family image obsolete may also have been due to her eastern biography.
All this made room on Germany’s right party spectrum. It was filled by the Neo-Nazi AfD and its Neo-Nazi henchmen. During Merkel’s reign, Neo-Nazi violence, brutalities, and killing increased sharply. This ranged from the National Socialist Underground to the anti-semitic attack on a synagogue in Halle to the assassination of Walter Lübcke (CDU), to the more recent Hanau killings committed by yet another Neo-Nazi.
Yet, the myth that this has happened because Angela Merkel modernized her party hold steadfast. In reality, this is only partly true. In fact, Angela Merkel’s so-called modernization simply followed long-term changes in German society. Angela Merkel’s going with the flow at least delayed the crash that conservative parties have experienced in some of Europe’s countries. It was tactics – not modernization. Yet, the myth of the modernizer continues.
Myth 5: The Crisis Manager
Angela Merkel has experienced three major economic crises during her time, first came the global financial crisis of 2007ff. This was followed by the euro (€) crisis of 2010. And finally, came the Coronavirus pandemic starting in early 2020. Yet, Germany’s capitalism has survived all three so-called collapses. Beyond that, these created the legendary myth of Merkel as a gifted crisis manager.
In the acute phases of the financial and corona crises, Merkel did almost everything right economically to secure the survival of capitalism, companies and corporations. Without hesitation, Angela Merkel delivered what companies and corporations demanded from her. She pumped billions of taxpayer-Euros into banks and the economy.
At the same time, some workers were protected by being able to receive a short-time allowance. Merkel’s clever public relations appearance in September 2008 remains unforgettable. At that time, Angela Merkel reassured bank customers, bank deposits are safe. What is disturbing about the myth of being gifted as a crisis manager, is that Merkel’s announcements were not her own inventions.
It followed a global pattern. In virtually all rich industrialized countries, massive stimulus programs were launched in the 2007ff. financial crisis as well as, in the Coronavirus pandemic. Designed to boost the economy and assure capitalism that the despised taxation state is here to help you. Merkel’s act was by no means original. Super crisis manager Merkel only implemented what was common elsewhere.
The real test of Angela Merkel came with the euro crisis simply because there were no models that Angela Merkel could follow. Yet, Merkel failed because they acted according to the time-honored blame-the-victim motto. As a consequence, it was clear that Greeks, Portuguese, Spaniards and Italians had to be punished.
Yet, the Eurozone had been badly hurt by the ongoing recession. As the economy slumped, the debt became even bigger – not smaller. Simultaneously, Merkel was proud to preside over Germany’s export world champion economy. This meant, Germany had a surplus in foreign trade.
Today, the euro crisis is by no means over. It continues to smolder. In 2020, the Coronavirus pandemic was added. Again, Angela Merkel began to bail out corporate capitalism. The EU Commission sounded the alarm. If only German firms survived, competition would be permanently distorted was the argument.
Because external pressure grew enormously, it came to Angela Merkel’s novelty. Quickly, Merkel’s government agreed to an EU-wide bailout package of €750bn. Again, Merkel didn’t lead. Angela Merkel followed the constraints. In the end, Angela Merkel has experienced various crises. In none of the three cases, Angela Merkel turned in to a crisis manager. Yet, the myth continues.
Myth 6: The Social Democrat
The last myth is that Angela Merkel is actually a secret social-democrat – a moderate liberal somewhat comparable to Joe Biden. Une idée fixe has been repeated over and over again throughout the past decades. Yet, there is virtually no substance for the idea that Angela Merkel is a secret social-democrat. Like all myths, substance is hardly needed to continue the myth until today.
Yet, it remains true that Germany’s legal minimum wage was eventually introduced in 2015 under Merkel. It came as part of Angela Merkel’s so-called Grand Coalition with Germany’s true social-democratic party, the SPD. Yet, the project of a minimum wage is something Merkel’s CDU has long fought against. Yet, the minimum wage law can be, to a large degree, attributable to the negotiating skills and the agreement made with the SPD. It had been a long-standing SPD policy – not a Merkel policy.
Yet it also came because of an overall shift in Germany’s social mood. In 2013, 86% of all Germans supported a minimum wage law. Among Merkel’s CDU voters, support was also high, 79%. The secret social-democrat Merkel was no secret social-democrat at all. Instead, Angela Merkel was ready to finally give in to SPD demands because society was ready and her own supporters were ready.
The minimum wage has always been less an expression of Merkel than of basic social-democratic policy. Yet it came as part of her political style to avoid conflicts with her coalition partner, the SPD. In short, if necessary or forced to, Angela Merkel is ready to adopt a pragmatic program as her consideration of power tactics takes precedent.
On the upswing, this assessed Angela Merkel in pursuing what is presented as a “non-ideological” position. Overall, Merkel’s record falls very short of having new ideas. Angela Merkel’s slogan of a so-called market-compliant democracy served her as an all-guiding principle. It clearly places capitalism above democracy.
In the end, concessions to more social-democratic policy and to her coalition partner never challenged Angela Merkel’s basic and very pro-capitalism ideology. As a consequence, social-democratic redistribution policies such as a wealth tax and higher income taxes for the rich remain unthinkable under Merkel.
In the end, Angela Merkel‘s petty neoliberal attitude became most evident during the euro crisis and her anti-democratic and extremely harmful austerity policy hitting southern European countries. Yet, the neoliberal hallucination of eternal optimism that Merkel once triggered has long vanished into thin air.
While Angela Merkel is supported by six myths, her party’s fortunes are declining. The post-Merkel CDU has just lost 2% of voters to the SPD. Angela Merkel’s designated right-wing successor Armin Laschet is not gaining much traction. So far, Laschet has failed to establish any myths comparable to Angela Merkel.
This article was published on 19 august 2021 at BuzzFeed.
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