Germany Grapples With Merkel’s Legacy
Angela Merkel was lionized by liberals, but her supposedly prudential policies have fallen to pieces since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Upon Angela Merkel’s departure from the Kanzleramt in Berlin in late 2021, liberals everywhere loaded her with praise. She was lauded as a European and world leader, a skillful crisis manager, a guarantor of stability against dangerous populists.
Shortly after Donald Trump’s election, the New York Times had proclaimed her “the liberal West’s last defender.” During the migrant crisis of 2015, when Merkel opened the doors to more than one million asylum seekers from the Middle East and elsewhere, some likened her to Mother Teresa. She was also applauded for her green-energy and climate policies. “Mutti” (benign mother) Merkel was almost a secular saint. Less than five months since she left, all this hyperbole looks absurd.
It has become terribly clear that, far from leaving Germany in good shape, her policies have left it divided, burdened, and appallingly vulnerable to external pressures. One prominent German pundit, Jan Fleischhauer of Focus magazine, has described Merkel’s legacy as “toxic.” Merkel’s supposed strategic thinking—allegedly always considering the final outcomes—has been revealed to be a myth.
The most obvious example is her energy policy, which has left Germany dangerously dependent on Russian sources of energy. This is a side effect of the Energiewende (the green “energy transition”) she championed for over a decade, during which time she hastily abandoned nuclear power in the wake of the Fukushima accident. Germany has since shut down almost all of its nuclear plants, and is now phasing out coal power.
This leaves Germany more reliant on volatile renewables like wind and solar and dependent on natural-gas imports. On her watch, gas imports through the Nord Stream 1 pipeline from Russia, initiated by her Social Democrat (SPD) predecessor Gerhard Schröder, increased greatly. She pushed ahead with plans for Nord Stream 2 in spite of many warnings from Washington and Eastern Europe. By the time Putin’s troops entered Ukraine, Germany was purchasing about 55 percent of its natural gas and more than one third of its oil from Russia.
When Donald Trump accused Germany at the 2018 U.N. General Assembly of becoming “totally dependent” on Russian energy and warned that Germany was becoming “captive to Russia,” Merkel’s then-foreign minister Heiko Maas was seen laughing and smirking. He later rejected the claims contemptuously. “There is no dependency on Russia, certainly not in energy matters,” he sneered. But now, Merkel’s successor, chancellor Olaf Scholz and his Green minister of economy and climate, are desperately trying to secure alternative supplies for natural gas. They have signed hugely expensive LNG contracts with Qatar and the United States, but these substitutes will not be available in sufficient quantities for two or three years. Berlin, at least for now, is hostage to Moscow’s gas.
It turns out Trump was also right about another crucial question: For years, he blasted Berlin’s abysmal financial contributions to NATO. Since the 1990s, Germany’s armed forces, the Bundeswehr, have been badly managed and significantly underfunded, receiving about one third less than the NATO-agreed target of 2 percent of GDP for military expenditures. The result is a demoralized army with deficient military hardware, utterly unfit for defensive purposes. Merkel and her coalition governments—four years with the liberal party Free Democratic Party (FDP), and 12 years with the SPD—never showed much interest in improving defensive capabilities. On the morning of Russia’s invasion on February 24, Lt. Gen. Alfons Mais, the army’s most senior officer, lamented that years of underinvestment had left his military “more or less naked”.
For decades, liberal and Green opinion-makers believed that militaries were an anachronism. Fukuyama’s liberal “end of history” resonated with these Angst-ridden elites, who also hoped for an end to German (that is, their own) history. Germany, once considered a militaristic Prussian bully, had turned into a liberal, pacifist, “woke” society incapable of asserting or even recognizing its own interests.
When Olaf Scholz’s new “traffic light”—red-green-yellow (SPD-Green-Free Democrat)—coalition assumed power in December 2021, they did not intend to emphasize security policy. After all, as Merkel’s last finance minister, Scholz had been co-responsible for underfunding of the armed forces for years. The new government’s focus was on “social justice,” with higher minimum wages and massive spending to fight climate change. The Greens had also pushed for their “woke” progressive agenda with a new transgender law, adoption rights for homosexual couples, and even the idea of civil unions for up to four partners. Annalena Baerbock, the new foreign minister, advocated a “feminist foreign policy”—woke shorthand for disarmament; emphasis on gender matters abroad and aid instead of military spending. The new defense minister, Christine Lambrecht, is woefully inexperienced in military and security affairs.
But three days after Russia’s invasion, Scholz gave a surprising speech in the Bundestag. The invasion, he declared, marked “a turning point (Zeitenwende) in the history of our continent.” Germany “must invest much more in the security of our country,” and needed “planes that fly, ships that sail, and soldiers who are optimally equipped for their missions.” Scholz’s announcement of 100 billion euros in extra spending for the army came as a shock to many in his own party, the SPD, and the Greens. Now, some Green politicians like Anton Hofreiter are suddenly among those making the loudest calls for the delivery of heavy arms to Ukraine. But then the Green Party has always been a strange ideological mix of naïve pacifism and “human rights” interventionism. After all, it was a red-green government with Green foreign minister Joschka Fischer, a former left-wing-revolutionary firebrand turned Madeleine Albright fan, who sent Germany’s armed forces into NATO’s battle against Serbia in 1999—the first time German soldiers had fought in a war since 1945.
The coalition is arguing internally about military support for Ukraine, with Chancellor Scholz less committed to the cause than some others. At the same time, the likes of former senior general Harald Kujat and Merkel’s former security advisor Erich Vad have urged caution to avoid Germany’s getting drawn into a full-blown NATO war with Russia. It turns out Scholz’s announcements of 100 billion euro for the army were overblown: The small print reveals that the supposed extra spending will not actually increase defense expenditures above the 2 percent target. Nevertheless, It marks a deviation from the country’s previous neglect of the army.
A U-turn in energy policy will be much harder to achieve. Merkel’s Energiewende legacy is deeply ingrained in the thinking of the SPD and especially the Green Party. To many, it is not a policy but a dogma. Many Germans love their Energiewende, and were very proud of the simultaneous abandonment of nuclear and coal, and thought the world would follow their example. However, no other major industrial country has done so, electricity prices in Germany are the highest among developed nations and the Wall Street Journal has called Energiewende “the world’s dumbest energy policy”.
Warren Buffet once joked: “It’s only when the tide goes out that you learn who’s been swimming naked.” Russia’s invasion is the turn of tides, and Germany is suddenly learning that she is naked. Just before Easter, Germany’s leading economic research institutes warned that any sudden shut-off of Russian energy would trigger a deep recession and endanger almost half a million jobs in the chemical industries and manufacturing. Yet even now, the government is refusing to reconsider the future of nuclear energy. They are stubbornly sticking to their plans to turn off the last three German nuclear plants by the end of 2022. Meanwhile, in France, President Macron has announced big plans for new nuclear plants, as has the U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson, and the Belgium governing coalition (including its Green Party) has agreed to let their nuclear plants run for ten more years.
Germany’s three-party ruling coalition is a heterogeneous mix of parties and ideologies. The Social Democrats call for more welfare spending, the liberal Free Democrats (FDP)—representing the “Mittelstand” (small and medium entrepreneurs)— oppose higher taxes, and the Greens—representing urban academic post-materialistic and feminist voters—are keen to “save the planet” and lead a great Green transformation of the economy and society. The coalition agreement is titled “Let’s Dare More Progress,” which could be translated as “Let’s Dare More Left-Wing Ideology and State Planning.” Many Greens fret obsessively over politically correct gender-neutral language, pronouns, eliminating discrimination, and comforting minorities. But suddenly, all their precious “micro-aggressions” have been rendered insignificant by the brutal macro-aggressions in Ukraine. Welcome back to Realpolitik!
Germany is likely to see a realignment of its party politics—a shift back to more traditional positions. This is quite significant for the Christian Democrats (CDU). During the 20 years Merkel was party leader, the once-conservative party shifted to the center and even the center-left, eliminating its right wing almost completely. Before her accession to the chancellery in 2005, some political observers speculated that Merkel could become a new Margaret Thatcher. Nothing could have been more wrong. While Thatcher was famously “not for turning,” Merkel perfected the art of the shameless U-turn in response to shifts in the Zeitgeist. She became a chameleon of power, perfectly adjusting her color to any backdrop.
Apart from her sudden turn against nuclear power, she also reversed the CDU’s former support for national military service. During the debt crisis of 2010 and the following years, she agreed to ever-bigger credit-support packages, meaning effectively that European debt became mutualized and the “no bail-out” clause in the Maastricht treaty became meaningless. However, the financial support came with strict “austerity” conditions, which caused a lot of resentment against Germany in the debtor countries of the European periphery.
But her most infamous U-turn occurred during the migrant crisis of 2015, when she decided to throw open the border for an uncontrolled influx of hundreds of thousands. Merkel’s Willkommenspolitik (“welcome policy”)—enacted along with generous welfare benefits for new arrivals—acted as strong pull factors. In the end, more than one and a half million migrants arrived in Germany. “We can do this!” she exclaimed at the time. In truth, we could not, and should not even have tried.
Integration has not worked well. Even now, almost seven years after they came, around two thirds of Syrians live largely on public benefits and have not found employment. The schmaltzy multiculturalism that left-wingers love to celebrate has too often meant merely added tension and crime, most notably street violence, like the notorious New Year’s Eve of 2016 when hundreds of German women celebrating the new year in Cologne were molested by recently arrived migrants.
Merkel’s open-border policies were firmly opposed by eastern European states like Hungary and Poland, who rejected uncontrolled mass migration of mostly young men from mostly Muslim backgrounds. This led to a schism between western and eastern E.U. members—an ironic outcome to occur under the watch of a politician sometimes called the “Queen of Europe.” Merkel has alienated conservatives at home and public opinion in all the eastern European countries by promoting European federalism—a fixation resented by countries that had cast off the yoke of Soviet dominance in 1990 and did not want to surrender their sovereignty all over again to a new super-state, this time managed in Brussels.
There lies another irony in Merkel’s legacy: As leader of the opposition against Schröder’s government, Merkel had castigated the government’s immigration policy and claimed “multi-culturalism has totally failed”. As chancellor, she became the mother of a new multicultural Germany beset by the social problems and high welfare costs that are associated with open-border regimes.
As a consequence of her immigration policy, Germany’s traditional political landscape was shattered. The CDU’s constant leftward drift opened space for a new party, the Alternative for Germany (AfD), to fill the vacuum. The allegedly anti-populist Merkel effectively served as midwife to the AfD, which has now consolidated national electoral support of about 10 percent. In the 2017 general elections, the Christian Democrats scored less than 33 percent of the vote—their worst result since 1949. At the end of Merkel’s 16 years, an exhausted and disoriented CDU, led by the lackluster Armin Laschet, did even worse, coming second to the SPD with just 24 percent of votes. The party imploded, and has struggled to reinvent itself. “Mutti” Merkel didn’t seem to be bothered.
All things considered, the four-term chancellor was less a provident “Mutti” than an opportunistic politician who left a dangerous legacy with which Germany and Europe will have to grapple for a long time.
Philip Plickert is a German economist and journalist with the daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, currently working as a business correspondent in London. He is the editor, most recently, of Merkel: Die kritische Bilanz nach 16 Jahren Kanzlerschaft (Merkel: A Critical Account of 16 Years as Chancellor). He can be followed on Twitter at @PhilipPlickert.