Merkel’s Year of Crisis Leadership
It was German Chancellor Angela Merkel who “stepped in” to keep Europe together when “not once or twice but three times this year there has been reason to wonder whether Europe could continue to exist,” says the TIME article that names her person of the year. In the course of the decade that Angela Merkel has governed Germany, the largest EU member state but long-time “political pygmy” has taken on increasing responsibility as a leader in Europe and internationally.
This increase of power is not the result of a master plan. Quite the contrary. As TIME also notes, the coincidence of multiple crises and the weakness or growing disinterest of other Western powers such as France, the U.K., and even the United States has pushed Germany into a position where the country and its head of government bear an unparalleled degree of influence in post-war Europe.
Controversial Leadership in Two Very Different Crises
BERLIN— It was the sovereign debt crisis in the eurozone starting in 2010 that put Germany and Merkel at the center of crisis management and governance reform in the EU. While Merkel, in the eyes of many, moved too slowly in the spring of 2010 and hence pushed up the price of rescuing Greece and other endangered EU member states, the German government did decide to support unparalleled measures of mutual insurance and risk sharing. The purpose was not only to rescue indebted eurozone countries, but also to fend of risks to German and other banks and, more fundamentally, to contain the risk of the currency union breaking apart under fierce market pressures. Merkel, together with Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble, pushed reform of eurozone governance, which was seen as an inseparable part of the strategy to keep the eurozone together.
Not that Merkel’s leadership in this case only won her friends. At times, Germany seemed, in the eyes of Southern Europeans, to be using its economic and financial power to impose “a German Europe,” and political polarization reached unparalleled levels, particularly when Germany seemed to be pushing Greece toward an exit in the summer of 2015. But strategic reason prevailed, and Merkel aligned with France’s President François Hollande to reach a deal to avoid the dissolution of the euro area.
While tragedy was averted in 2015, the challenge remains, five years in, to develop a common vision for the future of the eurozone, which is widely acknowledged to require political deepening. Berlin should “step in” to forge a consensus with its European partners that can ensure the euro can survive 2016 and beyond.
If it was the eurozone debt crisis that put Merkel front and center in Europe, it was her leadership on the refugee crisis that made 2015 hers. From the start, almost everything seems different about Merkel’s role in the refugee crisis from the eurocrisis — except that Berlin is at the epicenter of both. Slow and calculating —some would say stingy — on helping Greece, Merkel’s reaction to the influx of refugees was fast, bold, and principled. She assumed a position of moral leadership with her very liberal refugee policy and the expectation that the other EU member states would follow. To the surprise of many, Germany found itself in the position of asking for European solidarity, siding in particular with southern European countries like Greece and Italy who had had been asking for a quota system for the EU for a long time. On the other hand, Merkel has been accused of actually endangering European unity, by pressuring Eastern and Central European members to take in refugees and a time at which in many countries’ moderate parties are struggling with rising right-wing populism. The challenge for Merkel will be, on this issue just like on the eurozone, to keep the EU together by listening closely and forging a consensus.
Withstanding the Russian Challenge
BERLIN— Among the simultaneous crises in Europe that the German government had to centrally manage over the last years, it is perhaps the confrontation with Russia that most earned Angela Merkel the TIME’s nod for Person of the Year. Earlier than many in her own country and in the West broadly, she understood that the Ukraine crisis was really part of a broader challenge, which Russia had launched against the West, the values that define it, and the international order it stands for. Against much opposition at home and abroad, she has been consistent and principled in asserting these values and order, outspoken in criticizing their violations by the Kremlin, and key to imposing Western sanctions against Russia.
This has combined with more frequent outreach to Russian President Vladimir Putin than by any other world leader to defuse the escalating crisis in Ukraine, and she has invested considerable political capital in the Minsk process. If her efforts on Ukraine and vis-à-vis Russia have so far yielded mixed results, her undeniable achievement has been in keeping the European, transatlantic, and Western community united in the face of Russian aggression and revisionism. This bodes well for the West’s weathering of the Russia challenge in the long run.
The Trusted Partner
Stephen F. Szabo
WASHINGTON—Angela Merkel was not a born Atlanticist, having come of age in East Germany under a Communist regime. While she did not grow up in the deep networks that underpin German-American relations, this formative experience taught her the central importance of open and liberal societies and this meant giving priority to Germany’s relationship with the United States. Following the tumultuous Bush-Schroeder years and the split over the Iraq war, she did all she could to repair and restore that relationship.
Confronted by the deep German public anger over the Snowden and U.S. National Security Agency revelations, she kept the government-to-government relations on a steady keel. She took over management of the Western relationship with Russia at a time when the Obama administration was downgrading its role in Europe. She played an important role in supporting the sanctions policy on Iran and has been an advocate for the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. Merkel’s image in the U.S. was not damaged by the on-going scandal regarding Volkswagen’s tampering with emissions tests. While this has damaged Germany’s generally positive image in the United States, Merkel’s government is not seen to be responsible. In addition, Merkel’s openness to refugees has been generally seen as very positive and has overshadowed the VW affair. She has clearly emerged as Washington’s most important partner in Europe and has earned the confidence of Obama and U.S. leadership, a confidence reflected in the TIME award.
Don’t Forget the Balkans
WASHINGTON— There is at least one acceptation to the rule of Merkel’s ascent through crisis. Under Merkel’s leadership, for the past three years Germany has been leading consciously and determinedly from the front on invigorating the accession of the last non-integrated part of core geographic Europe, the Western Balkans. At a time in which Europe is confronting the perfect storm, the German government is trying to keep countries with a lesser appetite for enlargement on board and to encourage the European Commission to advance with its own procedures, while also taking a strong leadership role in the domestic debate. Due to changes in German legislation in 2009, the Bundestag must now be consulted on all matters pertaining to EU enlargement and thus it has become a de facto gate-keeper. Russia’s breaking of the rules of international order in Europe added European and German resolve to the enlargement process moving more quickly while still rigorously following the rules. And Germany’s role in securing a NATO invitation for Montenegro with the other members was crucial. Merkel’s role in bringing the countries of the Balkans into the European fold has been critical.
Dr. Daniela Schwarzer is GMF’s Senior Director for Research and Director of the Europe Program. Joerg Forbrig is Transatlantic Fellow for Central and Eastern Europe at GMF. Stephen F. Szabo is the Executive Director of the Transatlantic Academy, a GMF initiative in Washington, DC. Ivan Vejvoda is Senior Vice President for Programs at GMF in Washington, DC.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.