Austerity, far-right, Uyghurs: Merkel’s ambivalent legacy

German Chancellor Angela Merkel leaves a session of the German parliament Bundestag in Berlin, Germany, 25 August 2021. The German parliament consults situation in Afghanistan and Germany's devastating floods. [EPA-EFE/FILIP SINGER]

Crises have a knack for felling leaders. Not Chancellor Angela Merkel.

During 16 years in power, the veteran navigated Germany through the 2008 financial turmoil and ensuing eurozone debt crisis, the 2015 refugee emergency and now the coronavirus pandemic.

“Merkel has experienced more global crises than Macron, Johnson and Trump added together,” noted Zeit weekly, referring to contemporaries in France, Britain and the United States.

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

Budget dogma

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

Unemployment is at record lows, with 5.7% even in July as the economy rebounds from the impact of the pandemic.

Budget surpluses chalked up from 2012 also allowed the ageing nation to pay down a huge debt mountain, giving it a buffer against the impact of the health emergency.

But Germany’s fixation with balanced budgets has left a sour taste, particularly among southern Europeans, from the financial and eurozone debt crisis.

Merkel appeared deaf to pleas for debt relief when Greece was on the brink of economic collapse, triggering huge demonstrations in the country with protesters marching with images of the chancellor wearing a Hitler moustache.

While credited with securing huge European bailouts that saved Greece from crashing out of the euro, it was achieved at a heavy social cost including massive job losses.

But it was COVID-19 that forced her to make a drastic U-turn on her resistance to mutualising European debt.

Instead, Merkel spearheaded the €750 billion EU recovery fund, which sees the European Commission raising money by issuing bonds on behalf of the entire 27 members.

EU recovery deal: the summit that will cement Merkel's legacy

At the EU summit, German Chancellor Angela Merkel made a U-turn as German advocated for the assumption of joint debts and dissociated itself from the donor countries for the first time and not just for economic reasons. This time, Merkel is fighting for her legacy as a shaper of the EU. EURACTIV Germany reports.

Climate chancellor?

Merkel made the startling decision to shut Germany’s nuclear power plants in the aftermath of the 2011 Fukushima disaster, triggering the ‘Energiewende’ or switch to sustainable energy.

But the sudden policy shift forced greater reliance on coal energy in the transition period as the country battles to ramp up wind or biomass energy output.

Merkel’s government has been accused of protecting Germany’s vital automobile industry by watering down emissions regulation reforms, and its refusal to advance a 2038 deadline to quit coal energy has also irked green activists.

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

The government subsequently pulled forward targets to slash CO2 emissions by 65% by 2030 compared to 1990 levels, from an earlier goal of 55%.

“When I look at the situation, no one can say that we have done enough” for the environment, admitted Merkel in June. “Time is pressing. I can understand the impatience of young people.”

Germany pledges to become carbon-neutral by 2045

Germany pledges to become carbon-neutral by 2045. Germany has announced plans to become carbon neutral by 2045, in a landmark shift in climate policy driven by a recent constitutional court ruling demanding better defined emissions targets after 2030.

German Finance Minister …

Business as usual?

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

But on China’s mass incarceration of Uyghurs in the far western province of Xinjiang, Merkel has been accused of lacking bite.

Critics say she is hamstrung by huge economic interests in China.

Germany’s biggest automaker Volkswagen operates in Xinjiang, despite Beijing’s treatment of Uyghurs – a campaign that Washington describes as genocide.

Likewise, while Merkel has spoken out firmly against Russia over the poisoning, and jailing of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny, she has stuck to her guns on completing a controversial gas pipeline called Nord Stream 2.

The $12-billion pipeline beneath the Baltic Sea is set to double Russian natural gas shipments to Germany, Europe’s largest economy. It bypasses Ukraine, depriving Kyiv of essential gas transit fees.

Kyiv has called it a “dangerous geopolitical weapon” but Berlin believes the pipeline has a role to play in Germany’s transition away from coal and nuclear energy.

Merkel says Nord Stream 2 should not be used as 'geopolitical weapon', Zelenskiy unconvinced

German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Sunday (22 August) called for an agreement to extend Russian gas transit through Ukraine, in an attempt to reassure Kyiv over the nearly completed Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, which will carry gas to Europe while bypassing the country.

Far right, Europe faultlines

The arrival of more than a million asylum seekers in Germany further fractured the political landscape.

Popular anger over the mass influx sent a far-right bloc, the anti-immigration AfD, to parliament in 2017 for the first time since World War II, making it the biggest opposition force.

It also opened up a fault-line with former Eastern bloc nations including Hungary and Poland, which have dug in their heels against the new arrivals.

Six years on, the European Union has been unable to agree on unified migration policies.

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

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