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HomeGlobal Perspective & Critical ResearchThe Singular Chancellor: The Merkel Model and Its Limits

The Singular Chancellor: The Merkel Model and Its Limits

Author: Constanze Stelzenmüller

Affiliation: The Center on the United States and Europe at Brookings

Organization/Publisher: Foreign Affairs 

Date/Place: May/June, 2021/ USA

Type of Literature: Journal Article 

Word Count: 4360


Keywords: Angela Merkel, Germany, Christian Democratic Union, Leadership Model, Domestic Challenges and Relationships with Great Powers


The article provides a comprehensive assessment of the German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s rule era (2005-2021), wondering about the nature of her recipe for power, and whether it is replicable. Has her tenure made Germany, its neighbors, and its allies better off? And has she prepared her country for the future? The article is divided into three parts, in each of which the author works to provide an answer to one of these questions. The first part talks about Merkel’s model in governance. Merkel began her political career as a member in the Christian Democratic Union (CDU). Helmut Kohl chose her as Minister of Women and Youth in the first government of a unified Germany in 1991. Her political credentials and audacity enabled her to reach the position of chancellor in 2005. Since then, Merkel has withstood a series of domestic and external upheavals, such as the financial crisis in 2008 and the collapse of the Eurozone, Russia’s annexation of the Crimea in 2014, then its invasion of Ukraine, the refugee crisis in 2015, the rise of the far-right Alternative for Germany party, and then the Covid-19 pandemic; in addition to the intense internal political competition between the parties, which made her run four coalition governments with relative success. The author attributes Merkel’s steadfastness in facing all these crises to her personal characteristics. She has a strong personality even when she is in the presence of leaders like Putin. She is distinguished by her moral discipline at work, her appetite for information and arguments, her memory that is keen on keeping details related to all issues, as well as she possesses a rhetorical style which “anesthetizes commentators and diplomats alike.” Her steadfastness is also due to a practical style of governance, she has “what German strategists have called ‘asymmetric demobilization’: dull the issues, depoliticize conflicts, and thus keep the opponent’s voters from going to the polls.” Her style is also characterized by the transfer of responsibility to those inferior in her team, rewarding the successful, intolerance of the defaulters and narrowing the circle of absolute confidence in a very small team that she worked with for years. Merkel is also distinguished by her assiduously gauging and responding to her base’s mood, “as her chancellery was commissioning, on average, three surveys a week.” All this allowed her to modernize Germany’s conservative party, drag it into the center, gain popular support and play a balance game between parties. In the second part, the author wonders about the fate of the political legacy that Merkel will leave, and whether she deserves to be called a great chancellor like some of her predecessors. Despite Merkel’s political and economic achievements, the claims of grandeur are not as convincing as the author argues, due to the fact that many of the important achievements of her era had a darker side. Merkel has failed to achieve the required technological adaptation in major industries and to modernize the physical and digital infrastructure. Also, the industry has also known a series of scandals that may make the economy vulnerable to illicit financial flows and a tool for organized crime and authoritarian opponents. In addition, Germany’s suspension of the nuclear power project in 2011 led to the intensification of its dependence on coal, and Germany did not achieve its international emissions targets despite the huge wealth allocated to support renewable energy sources. Merkel’s record in Europe is more complicated. Southern European countries resented the austerity policies presented by Berlin during the Eurozone crisis and blamed it for the rise of populists in Greece and Italy, while Eastern European countries were troubled by Germany’s reception of refugees. The liberals accused Merkel of turning a blind eye to the democratic backsliding in Poland and the total despotism in Hungary. British prime ministers were surprised that she had not proposed any sanctions against them regarding their desire to leave the European Union, and Macron was also very disappointed when he found Merkel unimpressed by his ideas that calls for deeper European integration. Foreign relations with the great powers was Merkel’s most challenging issue. Germany is a middle European power that imports energy from Russia, depends on Chinese commercial exports and the American security umbrella, so its strategic options are limited. A decade ago, Merkel saw Russia and China as strategic partners, so strengthened economic and trade relations with them. Today, there is a German and European reassessment of their dark relationship with Russia and China due to their aggressive and hegemonic behaviors. Although Merkel condemns Russian behaviors in Europe and supports the European Union sanctions imposed on Russia regarding the Navalny case, the author criticizes Merkel’s refusal to suspend cooperation with the Russian “Gazprom Nord Stream 2” pipeline project despite US pressure.  Driven by cyber concerns, Merkel moved against the activities of the Chinese company Huawei in Germany, and also condemned the Chinese persecution of the Uyghur minority; however, when Germany took over the rotating presidency of the European Union in the second half of 2020, Merkel supported an investment agreement between China and the European Union, which caused great concern on both sides of the Atlantic. Merkel is considered a transatlantist, so she suffered major problems with Trump and welcomed Biden in return, as she believes in the importance of the alliance with the US. But German security capabilities are still underfunded, and German military weakness has undermined the security of Europe and NATO, according to the author. In the third part, the author argues that Germany seems unprepared to face the upcoming disruption, internally and externally. Merkel herself has warned in numerous speeches of the illusion of stability in Europe that makes it unprepared for the next disruption, as happened before the Thirty Years War (1618-1648). Merkel, for example, considered the Covid-19 pandemic the biggest challenge Germany has faced since World War II. Despite her bright model of facing the pandemic, she is now facing her biggest failure at home with the second wave of the pandemic. As for the domestic political level, there is no solid alternative on the horizon that the Germans agree upon after Merkel, even from within her party, which makes the author question the fortunes of Merkel’s party in the upcoming September elections. Despite her great achievements, the author concludes that Merkel bears the final responsibility for Germany’s current situation and its relationship with allies and opponents. Merkel herself also considered Germany’s current state as “an object lesson in the dangers of failing to prepare for and protect oneself, one’s neighbors, and one’s allies against the next disruption.”


By: Djallel Khechib, CIGA Senior Research Associate



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