For 16 years, Angela Merkel has shaped the dynamics of the EU, more so than any other European head of state. This was not only due to Germany’s economic and political leverage, but very much due to her as a person, too. Stoic, pragmatic and with a lot of patience, she was often able to mediate between different claims and interests and to position herself as a central figure when it came to negotiating workable compromises.
What made Merkel so strong on the European level was also the fact that Germany was spared the political upheavals and the massive erosion of the traditional party system that could be observed in many other European countries. The German Chancellor was an anchor of stability in the EU who saw four French Presidents, four Spanish Prime Ministers, and nine Italian Prime Ministers come and go during her tenure. While other European countries slid into a deep economic crisis after the economic and financial crisis, which became a crisis of the eurozone, the Federal Republic boomed. Unemployment was low, the order books full.
"What is good for Europe was and is good for us" argued Chancellor Angela Merkel in an interview with six major European newspapers shortly before the start of the German EU Council Presidency in June 2020. Conversely, many others in Europe felt that the status quo in the EU served Germany above anyone else and that its economic growth largely came at the expense of other EU member states. Berlin's enormous influence was often seen as a problem. In the 2017 election campaign, for example, French President Emmanuel Macron had to defend himself against the accusation by his challenger Le Pen that he was merely Angela Merkel's "vice-Chancellor". In the same year, during Donald Tusk's re-election as EU Council President, the PiS camp claimed the "German candidate" had won.
Undoubtedly, German European policy under Merkel has often divided rather than united the EU. Berlin did not always appear to be the honest broker it claimed to be. During her time in office, Merkel made some unilateral decisions against explicit objections from close European partners. The Nord Stream 2 pipeline serves as the best case in point.
At the European level, the Chancellor was exposed to conflicting interests and expectations. In the eyes of Central and Eastern Europeans, she often served as a laudable counterweight to French President Emmanuel Macron — also by ensuring that Germany always strongly advocated bringing all EU member states on board rather than moving forward with only a few. By contrast, her management of the 2015 refugee crisis faced staunch opposition – especially among Visegrád countries. On many issues, “frugal” Northern European member states felt well-represented under her leadership. But Berlin’s U-turn on common EU debt to jointly tackle the economic consequences of the Covid-19 crisis in spring 2020 was received with extreme reluctance and great concern. Southern member states, however, welcomed her change of mind precisely because it contrasted starkly with her handling of the eurozone crisis a decade earlier – when she was vilified across Southern Europe as representative of the Fourth Reich.
Berlin's response to its partners’ conflicting expectations was to find a balance that everyone could be happy with. The best example is the Next Generation EU recovery instrument, with which Merkel wanted to help the South in particular, which has been badly hit economically by the Covid-19 pandemic, but at the same time emphasised that it was a historic exception so as not to lose the North.
Among the things Merkel has most often been accused of is her insistence on the status quo. Unlike Macron, she has never shared great visions about the further direction of the European project. Her European policy has been about small, predictable steps to manage the Union’s many challenges — in other words,her approach has aimed at changing just enough to keep things as they are. Her reflexes were always to prevent the EU from falling apart, but without a clear idea on how to move forward. She mastered the policy of adapting to external conditions instead of shaping them. One reason for this was that Berlin often faced a dilemma: policy measures that could reduce EU scepticism in southern Europe would inevitably have further fuelled EU scepticism in the north (including Germany) or east — and vice versa. Merkel's response was to change just enough to prevent Europe’s overall fragile structure from faltering.
And yet, the Chancellor was always aware that the differences in competitiveness within the EU and the eurozone, the shortcomings in the construction of the Economic and Monetary Union and the architecture of the Schengen area cannot be sustainable. In 2012, in a remarkable speech, she spoke out in favour of a political union – "a European Union with a Commission that acts as a European government with the competences we delegate as nation states, with a strong European Parliament - which has always grown stronger in the course of European integration - with a Council of Heads of State and Government as a second chamber and with a European Court of Justice as the supreme European authority, to which we must then also submit." However, since the political reforms that the EU needed looked politically impossible, she never pushed for them but focussed on what was acceptable to the majority – in Germany and Europe.
At the end of her tenure, Merkel’s record is that she was able like no one else to bring European heads of state and government to the table and negotiate with them until a viable solution was found for all. She was the EU’s first crisis manager, who has steered the EU through the global financial crisis, the eurozone crisis, the refugee crisis, Brexit, Trumpism, and the pandemic — as a beacon of stability in an ever more polarised Europe. No other EU leader can credibly fill this void after she is gone – at least not for now.