BERLIN — Angela Merkel will leave office as one of modern Germany's longest-serving leaders and a global diplomatic heavyweight, with a legacy defined by her management of a succession of crises that shook a fragile Europe rather than any grand visions for her own country.
In 16 years at the helm of Europe's biggest economy, Merkel did end military conscription, set Germany on course for a future without nuclear and fossil-fueled power, enable the legalization of same-sex marriage, introduce a national minimum wage and benefits encouraging fathers to look after young children, among other things.
But a senior ally recently summed up what many view as her main service: as an anchor of stability in stormy times. He told Merkel: “You protected our country well.”
“All the major crossroads you had to navigate … we never mapped out in any election program — they came overnight and you had to govern well,” Bavarian governor Markus Soeder said.
Merkel passed her first test in 2008, pledging at the height of the global financial crisis that Germans' savings were safe. Over the following years, she was a leading figure in the effort to save the euro currency from the debt crisis that engulfed several members, agreeing to bailouts but insisting on painful spending cuts.
In 2015, Merkel was the face of a welcoming approach to migrants as people fleeing conflicts in Syria and elsewhere trekked across the Balkans. She allowed in hundreds of thousands and insisted that “we will manage” the influx, but ran into resistance both at home and among European partners.
And in the twilight of her career — she announced in 2018 that she wouldn't seek a fifth term — she led a COVID-19 response that saw Germany fare better than some of its peers.
On the international stage, Merkel insisted on seeking compromises and pursuing a multilateral approach to the world's problems through years of turbulence that saw the U.S. drift apart from European allies under President Donald Trump and Britain leave the European Union.
“I think Ms. Merkel's most important legacy is simply that, in such a time of worldwide crises, she provided for stability,” said Ralph Bollmann, a biographer of Merkel and a journalist with the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung newspaper.
There was “a constant succession of crises that were really existential threats and raised questions over the world order we are used to, and her achievement is that she led Germany, Europe and perhaps to some extent the world fairly safely through that, for all that you can criticize details,” Bollmann said.
Before winning the top job in 2005, he noted, Merkel campaigned as “a chancellor of change, who wanted to make Germany more modern,” seeking deeper economic reforms and a more socially liberal approach than her center-right party had previously taken.
But she ditched much of her economic agenda after almost blowing a huge poll lead by turning off voters with talk of far-reaching reforms, instead embracing what she called an approach of “many small steps.” Along with a pragmatic willingness to jettison conservative orthodoxy such as conscription when opportune, it enabled her to dominate the center ground of German politics.
Crises consumed so much energy that “not much time was left to deal with other issues,” Bollmann said. There is plenty of unfinished business: Merkel has conceded that “the lack of digitization in our society” is a problem, ranging from notoriously patchy cell phone reception to many health offices using faxes to transmit data during the pandemic.
Merkel’s political longevity is already historic. Among democratic Germany's post-World War II leaders, she lags only Helmut Kohl, who led the country to reunification during his 1982-98 tenure. She could overtake even him if she is still in office on Dec. 17. That's feasible if parties are slow to form a new government after the Sept. 26 election.
Merkel, 67, insists that others must judge her record. Still, she highlighted a few achievements at a rare campaign appearance last month, starting with the reduction of the number of unemployed in Germany from over 5 million in 2005 to under 2.6 million now.
Predecessor Gerhard Schroeder, whose welfare-state trims and economic reforms were beginning to kick in when he left office, arguably deserves part of the credit.
Merkel also inherited a plan to exit nuclear power from Schroeder, but abruptly accelerated it following the meltdowns at Japan's Fukushima plant in 2011. More recently, she set in motion Germany's exit from coal-fueled power.
The chancellor pointed to progress on renewable energy, saying its share of the German energy mix has risen from 10% to well over 40%. Merkel was often referred to as the “climate chancellor” in her early years, but also has drawn criticism for moving too slowly; her government this year moved forward the date for reducing German greenhouse gas emissions to “net zero” to 2045, after the country’s top court ruled that previous plans place too much of the burden on young people.
Merkel praised her government's drive to improve Germany's public finances, which enabled it to stop running up new debt from 2014 until the coronavirus pandemic pushed it into huge rescue packages. Opponents argue that it skimped on necessary investments in infrastructure.
“I could talk about how we saved the euro,” she said, adding that “our principle of combining the affected countries' own responsibility with solidarity was exactly the right method to give the euro a future.” Merkel's austerity-heavy approach was resented deeply in parts of Europe and controversial among economists, but allowed her to overcome reluctance at home to bail out strugglers.
Whatever the ultimate verdict, Merkel can celebrate a unique end to her tenure: she is set to become the first German chancellor to leave power when she chooses.