Merkel’s Departure Ushers in a New Era for Germany and Europe

Angela Merkel, the lady who has driven European politics for nearly two decades, handed over her office to the next German chancellor, thanked her staff, then walked to the door and exited, for the last time. 

Merkel left the office she initially took up when President George W. Bush was still in the White House in a characteristically modest manner on Wednesday, after 16 years as Germany’s and Europe’s unofficial leader. 

Merkel was the world’s most powerful female leader for a long time, serving as the primary political figure in Germany and Europe through four US presidents, five British prime ministers, and eight Italian prime ministers. Her inexorable rise to prominence drew both fans and enemies, but she remained a solitary source of stability for the continent through recurrent crises. 

Merkel, a Christian Democrat, has been criticized for failing to nurture a successor, although she may well have done so in the end. Only a member of her traditional opposition, Scholz, a Social Democrat and her former finance minister, was sworn in Wednesday following a campaign that pledged continuity, much to the displeasure of her own party. 

Merkel’s exit, however, represents the end of a dominant era in German politics that she herself described as “eventful and often very challenging,” as well as the start of a new and uncertain chapter for Germany and Europe. 

Many people who worked closely with the retiring German chancellor credit her power to her dedication and readiness to compromise. 

Merkel’s complete impact on her country and continent, as a pastor’s daughter from the former communist East, will be revealed only in the coming years. But, for the time being, the fulcrum of her legacy is widely regarded as her decision in 2015 and 2016 to accept over one million refugee seekers into Germany. 

The decision deeply split her country, notably along the historic East-West fault line, and fuelled the rise of a far-right nationalist movement stronger than at any time since the Nazis. 

It did, however, soften Germany’s image abroad and establish her country as a liberal beacon at a time when populism endangered the very foundations of the West’s democratic order. 

The second defining phase of her presidency was Europe’s financial crisis, and her tight-fisted prescription for many years of severe budget cuts as a way out of it — something many southern Europeans have yet to forgive her for more than a decade later. 

Her approval ratings were plummeting at the time, and it appeared that she might not be able to complete her fourth term. The pandemic provided Merkel, an educated scientist with a well-known cool demeanor, with yet another honeymoon in the polls. 

Scholz, her finance minister for the previous four years, has a similar temperament and has profited on the parallels.  Much to the displeasure of her own party, Merkel stated that she would “sleep tight at night” knowing Scholz was in charge of the country. She invited Scholz to accompany her to the Group of 20 conferences in Rome in October, where he would meet leaders like Vice President Joe Biden. Since the election two months ago, she has included him in every key decision. Last week, the two co-chaired a COVID emergency conference with the governors of Germany’s 16 states. 

Many Germans were proud of Merkel’s handling of the transition, drawing strong comparison to former President Donald Trump and his supporters’ refusal to acknowledge Biden’s election. Merkel appeared calm, even cheerful, as she departed the chancellery handover ceremony on Wednesday. She turned to Scholz as she walked to the door.