The end of an era: As Angela Merkel steps down after 16 years as German Chancellor, a look at her biggest moments – from migrant crisis and Covid (and letting EU destroy her hard work), to battling Brexit and Trump
Angela Merkel is stepping down as German Chancellor today after 16 years in power, ending a term that has redefined not just the country but also the political make-up of Europe and the continent’s relations with the rest of the world.
The 67-year-old former scientist will be remembered as Germany’s first female Chancellor and its second-longest serving, having survived four American Presidents and five British Prime Ministers – her first being George W Bush and Tony Blair.
Her departure marks the end of an era for Germany which saw the country establish itself as the de-facto leader of Europe, cement its status as an economic super-power, and wield considerable influence on the global stage.
During that time, Merkel has steered Germany through the 2007 recession and subsequent Greek debt crisis, the 2016 Berlin terror attack, Brexit, Trump’s presidency and Covid – winning widespread praise for her pragmatism and competence, despite the EU hamstringing her vaccine drive.
But her legacy also bears the stain of the 2015 migrant crisis – during which she threw open Europe’s doors to millions of refugees and asylum seekers while infamously declaring ‘we can do this’.
As people poured across the Mediterranean and Europe’s eastern border – including future terror attackers – Merkel watched her approval rating plummet while far-right parties such as the AfD capitalised on anti-migrant sentiment to return to the corridors of power after a decades-long absence.
Germany still lives in the shadow of that moment – with far-right terror groups and hate crimes on the rise – and must now find a way out without Merkel, who departs with no obvious successor to her legacy.
Armin Laschet, the man chosen by her Christian Democrat party as her political heir, has slumped in election polls and left the CDU on the cusp of losing power.
Finance Minister Olaf Scholz’s centre-left Social Democrats take the lead ahead of a wide open election on September 26.
Angela Merkel is stepping down as Chancellor of Germany this month after a mammoth 16 years in power
As a young woman, Merkel was taught to believe in a Soviet system that folded 15 republics into a single state, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (Angela Merkel pictured in 1972 at a youth training camp for the East German civil defence)
Born to a Lutheran pastor father and English teacher mother in 1954, Merkel grew up behind the Iron Curtain in Brandenburg, East Germany.
At school she learned to speak Russian fluently and as a teenager she took part in cadet drills with her comrades under the watchful eye of Communist officers.
All children had to take part if they wanted to go to university, but Merkel went a step further by becoming propaganda secretary for the youth movement, the FDJ.
After school she studied physics at Karl Marx University (now the University of Leipzig) where she met Ulrich Merkel, marrying him a short time later.
She was working on her doctorate in quantum chemistry when the childless couple divorced five years later in 1982, though she kept his surname.
Merkel was a fervent member of the Communist youth movement, working as a propaganda secretary before turning into a democrat as a university student
After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Merkel worked as a spokeswoman for the conservative Democratic coalition which swept to power in East Germany’s first and last election.
She became deputy spokeswoman for the government of Lothar de Maizière (CDU) the day before the reunification of Germany.
De Maizière would later remark that his press secretary seemed completely disinterested in her appearance and had to ask a colleague to buy her clothes.
‘She didn’t seem to care about her outward appearance at all,’ he said. ‘She looked like a typical GDR [East German] scientist, wearing a baggy skirt and Jesus sandals and a cropped haircut.’
In December 1990, Merkel won a seat in the Bundestag and was appointed minister for women and youth by Chancellor Helmut Kohl in January 1991.
Kohl became her political mentor and referred to her as ‘mein Madchen’ (‘my girl’).
But over the next decade Merkel would make fools of any who dared underestimate her, becoming Kohl’s political executioner and snatching the CDU leadership after a donations scandal.
She sidelined her rivals and squeezed into power with the narrowest of majorities in 2005, the country’s first female Chancellor and the first born in East Germany.
The CDU leader is sworn into parliament in 2005 after she was appointed chancellor, the first woman to hold the post
One of the biggest policy failures of Merkel’s tenure has been her management of the migrant crisis after more than a million settled in Germany when she welcomed them with open arms in 2015.
Before the peak of the crisis, Germany had been sending back refugees to the country in which they had claimed asylum.
But the country became overwhelmed with applications in the wake of the rush from Syria and North Africa and struggled to determine whether the mass of asylum applications had been previously made in another EU country.
Merkel decided to throw open her doors and accept all migrants even from people who had previously applied for refugee status in another EU country.
In a rallying cry to her nation, the German chancellor Angela Merkel declared in the autumn of 2015: ‘We can do this. We are strong and can manage it.’
Even as Mrs Merkel’s historic speech was broadcast on German TV, reports flashed up on the screen that trainloads of men, women and children were clamouring to be let in at her borders.
Many in Hungary and southeastern Europe interpreted her message as an invitation to Germany, sending many to the country not previously known as the most welcoming place for migrants.
Merkel decided to throw open her doors and accept all migrants even from people who had previously applied for refugee status in another EU country in 2015. Pictured in 2006
Wellwishers wait for the arrival of migrants with a banner at Frankfurt Railway Station in September 2015
In astonishing scenes, thousands of migrants turned up at railway stations in German cities to be met by local children blowing soap bubbles and handing over teddy bears as the country threw off its past to become the humanitarian face of Europe.
Barack Obama would praise Merkel for being on ‘the right side of history’, while other EU nations were more restrained.
But within days, refugee processing centres and accommodation were overwhelmed with the throng of people and started reinstating border controls.
A number of migrants — including jihadists and economic opportunists — pretended to be Syrian refugees.
They came in under the radar as the number queuing to get to Germany grew each day.
This came to a head in New Year’s Eve in 2015 when an estimated 1,200 women were sexually assaulted, with many of them raped.
A crowd of refugees queue at a rail station in front of police at Freilassing amid the huge rush to Germany
Police said more than half of the suspects had arrived in Germany that year, mostly from North Africa.
There followed a surge in xenophobic attacks in response, fuelling a deepening divide in response to the migration wave.
A plot by neo-Nazis to bomb a refugee centre was thwarted at the last minute and there was a a surge in support for the right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, ushering in a far-right party into German parliament for the first time since the Nazis.
In the twilight of her career, having announced in 2018 that she wouldn’t seek a fifth term, Merkel led a Covid-19 response that saw Germany fare better than some of its European peers.
Infection levels and death tolls have remained lower than Germany’s counterparts.
The country, with a population of 83 million, has recorded nearly 4 million infections and 92,000 deaths.
The leader, who has a PhD in quantum chemistry, was praised by many for her handling of Covid at the start of the pandemic
The UK, France, Italy and Spain, all with smaller populations than Germany, have all registered more infections and deaths, with the UK alone recording 3 million more cases.
But the data aside, Merkel – like most world leaders – has not been immune to domestic criticism as a result of her decisions to deal with the virus.
She was initially seen as successful early in the crisis, having given greater control to German states to manage their own lockdown measures.
A strong healthcare system, with far more hospital beds and ventilators than any other European country, helped to ward off huge outbreaks in medical centres and kept the infection rates down.
The first rapid Covid test was developed in Germany and were quickly rolled out across the country, while other European leaders were floundering.
Merkel went into lockdown early and set up an effective contact-tracing system that was the envy of her rivals.
But the early optimism soon faded as Merkel struggled to contain a second and third wave of the virus.
She hesitated over additional lockdowns, often flip-flopping over key decisions, but it was her vaccine procurement and subsequent rollout, or lack of it, that have attracted criticism.
Merkel went into lockdown early and set up an effective contact-tracing system that was the envy of her rivals
She decided to join the EU’s botched joint vaccine procurement scheme which lagged behind Britain, now free of the bloc’s constraints and able to speed ahead and make its own deals.
The 27-nation group ordered too little, too late, and could only watch on during the early months as millions were inoculated in less bureaucratic countries.
The EU was slower to strike a deal with AstraZeneca than the UK, while its deals with Moderna and Pfizer were met with distribution and supply problems.
Commission president Ursula von der Leyen, who served in Merkel’s German cabinet for 14 years, admitted in February: ‘We were late to authorise. We were too optimistic when it came to massive production and perhaps too confident that what we ordered would actually be delivered on time.’
The AstraZeneca jab, which could be kept long-term in an ordinary domestic fridge at temperatures above freezing and would not be sold for profit, was snapped up by the British government who bet on it at an early stage of the pandemic.
Belatedly, the EU – acting collectively for member states – also wanted in on the breakthrough.
But their negotiating approach towards AstraZeneca was unexpected. There was a ‘ferocious’ attempt to drive down the price of a drug, which was already being offered at or near cost.
A protestor wearing a mask depicting Merkel takes part in an anti-lockdown demonstration in Berlin
And after three months they succeeded. The EU got a price of only £1.55 per dose, below what the UK government pays. But the negotiated deal was flawed.
Overwhelmed by demand, AstraZeneca did not have the capacity to deliver in the quantity and timescale it had agreed with Brussels.
So were sown the seeds of what would become a full-blown vaccine ‘war’ that would have dire reputational consequences for the AstraZeneca vaccine.
Hostilities broke out at the start of this year when it became clear to the EU that it would not be getting even half the supplies it expected.
The manufacturers were accused of favouring orders to the UK where the public vaccination programme was outstripping that in the ponderous EU.
European leaders then started grumbling about the efficacy of the vaccine in response to the row over its rollout beyond the UK.
Not enough elderly people had taken part in earlier clinical trials to satisfy some national regulatory bodies, they said.
In January, only hours after the European Medicines Agency (EMA) approved its use on all adults, Emmanuel Macron said the jab was ‘quasi-ineffective for over-65s’ and that it ‘doesn’t work the way we were expecting [it] to’.
Under fire because of the huge disparity between the UK and French mass immunisation numbers, he added: ‘The goal is not to have the biggest number of first injections.’
Merkel then added fuel to the fire by saying she, then aged 66, was too old to take the AstraZeneca jab, despite data proving the contrary.
Germany restricted its use to under-60s, only to then reverse the decision to only allow over-60s to take it following reported links to blood clots.
The indecision amid the war of words caused an understandable resistance to the AstraZeneca jab in Germany and Europe, despite its benefits which had been highlighted in the UK.
Merkel later U-turned again and received the jab as her first dose, before she was given a Moderna vaccine for her second.
When at last the supply of vaccines to the EU started to arrive in bulk, Germany was again besieged by problems with its rollout.
Officials said shots were left ‘lying around’ unused, with some being deliberately held back for use as a second dose, in what was branded a ‘scandal’.
To book a vaccine appointment, Germans had to follow a online portal with 10 steps and a two-factor authentication process which was branded a ‘piece of ‘s***’ by one health official who feared elderly people would struggle to master the system.
Vaccination letters were also sent to dead people in Lower Saxony, while others were unable to book a second appointment.
After the sluggish rollout, around 60 per cent of the German population has now been fully vaccinated and about 65 per cent have had at least one shot, but infections are starting to rise rapidly again, prompting fears that Merkel’s successor will inherit the mess.
The EU and Brexit
As leader of the European Union’s biggest country, Merkel was always going to command attention on the continent.
She took power during a time of strength for the bloc after it saw its biggest enlargement to date with the addition of 10 new countries in 2004.
The euro was trading strong and Merkel quickly positioned herself as a major player able to enforce her pro-European views in the union.
But 16 years later, Britain is no longer a part of the EU, which barely survived the 2008 financial crash and the subsequent debt crisis that crippled the Euro and many European economies.
Merkel refused to give David Cameron a lifeline by granting him greater immigration controls ahead of the referendum
Throughout it all, Merkel has become a de facto leader of the EU, overcoming domestic resistance to negotiate bailouts for Eurozone members struggling to refinance their government debt.
‘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.
But arguably the biggest test to her European project came with Britain’s decision to leave the EU in 2016.
Some say she was one of the instigators of the British will to leave the bloc after refusing to throw David Cameron a lifeline on immigration ahead of the referendum.
Boris Johnson came within hours of a no deal Brexit but again, Merkel intervened to ensure the last resort was avoided
There followed years of wrangling, with both parties failing to compromise and settle on the future relationship between Britain and its biggest trading partner.
Merkel again was a sticking point for British negotiators, standing resolute on maintaining the four fundamental freedoms of the single market, of goods, people, services and capital.
Her uncompromising stance proved the downfall for Theresa May who struggled to placate the Brexiteers in her party while securing a mutually beneficial withdrawal.
Boris Johnson came within hours of a no deal Brexit but again, Merkel intervened to ensure the last resort was avoided.
At the time, British and EU diplomats were briefing that the negotiations would end in failure.
Last-minute lobbying from Berlin, which has been keen to secure zero-tariff, zero-quota access to the world’s fifth biggest economy, saw European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen step in to break the deadlock.
EU sources said Germany was most concerned about Britain trying to undercut and outcompete European firms after Brexit.
Emmanuel Macron and his grand European project tried to steal Merkel’s crown after his election in 2017
‘We must have a level playing field, not just for today but for tomorrow and beyond,’ Merkel said on December 9, saying Brussels would not accept ‘unfair competition’.
The move brought about an agreement after years of back and forth, with Merkel never compromising on hard customs borders in an attempt to discourage any future Eurosceptic leaders in the bloc.
Under Merkel, Germany overtook France as the major EU force.
But Emmanuel Macron and his grand European project tried to steal that crown after his election in 2017.
The French leader is a strong advocate of further European integration, favouring a more federal system than his German counterpart.
But he proved a strong equal for Merkel after her dealing with Nicolas Sarkozy and Francois Hollande.
They joined forces to secure the £750 billion Covid relief fund to prevent huge economic fallout from the pandemic.
With Merkel now stepping back and her successor likely to command less authority in Germany and across Europe, Macron could position himself as the new de facto leader of Europe, further integrating the union in the years to come.
Foreign policy and Trump
At the start of her regime, Merkel was a big proponent of strengthening the transatlantic relationship with the US.
She came in at a time of strained global ties due to the Iraq War and saw a strong bond with the superpower as a potential boon to the then flailing German economy.
Condoleezza Rice had even said there was a ‘poisoned atmosphere’ between the US and German governments under Gerhard Schroeder after his vocal opposition to the invasion and his lack of support.
From the outset, Merkel backed the war and sought to build a strong relationship with George W. Bush.
After their first meeting, the president said the chancellor was ‘really refreshing to work with’, marking a turnaround in the dynamics between the two powers.
The pair worked well together, with Bush even inviting her to his Texas ranch.
Bush said recently of the outgoing leader: ‘Merkel brought class and dignity to a very important position; [she] made very hard decisions, and did so with what’s best for Germany, and did so based upon principle.
Under Barack Obama relations became strained in 2013 when it was uncovered that the US had been spying on Merkel for years.
It was revealed that, beginning in 2002, Merkel’s phone has been ‘on an NSA [National Security Agency] target list.’
US President Donald Trump (R) talking with German Chancellor Angela Merkel (C) and surrounded by other G7 leaders during a meeting of the G7 Summit in La Malbaie, Quebec, Canada, in June, 2018
Merkel was outraged: ‘Spying among friends, that is unacceptable,’ she said.
However, the pair were undoubtedly close and shared a similar view of Germany’s importance in Europe to keep the bloc united in the face of Russian aggression.
By the end of Obama’s second term the pair were speaking on the phone once a week and she even appeared to tear up when Obama visited Berlin in late 2016.
The pair held a press conference at which Obama called her his ‘closest ally’ in what was widely interpreted as the passing of the baton of liberal democracy to Germany after Donald Trump won the general election.
Obama’s final phone call as U.S. President was to Merkel, during which he thanked her for her ‘strong, courageous, and steady leadership’ and expressed ‘appreciation for their personal friendship.’
In Trump, Merkel would find an insurmountable opponent and the damage done to relations between Berlin and Washington is still being repaired today.
The TV showman was elected on an isolationist mandate, he continually attacked Germany for its meagre military spending and claimed that Berlin was beholden to Moscow because of a proposed new gas pipeline.
Their first encounter was brutally awkward, with Merkel offering a ceremonial handshake for the cameras which Trump seemed to spurn.
She had tried a charm offensive and failed.
After the photographers left, Trump reportedly announced: ‘Angela, you owe me one trillion dollars.’
The pressure continued as world leaders attended the G7 summit in 2018, with Merkel wishing to unite the free world against Vladimir Putin.
‘What good is NATO if Germany is paying Russia billions of dollars for gas and energy? The U.S. is paying for Europe’s protection, then loses billions on Trade. Must pay 2% of GDP IMMEDIATELY, not by 2025,’ Trump tweeted.
The president’s tweets exposed a bitter truth for Germany and Europe: they have long relied upon the United States and had allowed their militaries to dwindle.
Unlike Obama, Trump did not appear to be concerned with the fate of Europe and Merkel struggled to reconcile this with her world view, which saw the US as the liberators of the continent and central to Germany’s post-war history.
Germany’s business dealings with Russia and China posed serious concerns for Washington – and still do so today.
At the time many suggested that the ‘Queen of Europe’ had disastrously bungled her relationship with the president.
Merkel stated with disappointment in 2017: ‘The times when we could fully rely on others are to an extent over.’
Trump’s rhetoric coupled with a shift in trade policy hit Merkel hard and the German-American relationship is still being patched up today.
The shift to Joe Biden, who like Merkel believes in personal relationships, has eased fears in Berlin and has been met with optimism on both sides of the Atlantic.
However, the foreign policy turbulence of the last years of Merkel’s tenure will be a defining feature of German and European history.
Recent events in Afghanistan, serve only to underline that Trump was correct about European military capabilities.
Some insight into her view is perhaps revealed in a speech she gave at Harvard in 2019, telling graduates: ‘Nothing can be taken for granted. Our individual freedoms cannot be taken for granted; democracy cannot be taken for granted, neither peace nor prosperity.’
The Greek debt crisis
Merkel has never had children, but if she had been unfortunate enough to have a Prodigal Son, her maternal style may have resembled the tough love she dealt Greece during its debt crisis.
By 2011, the global economic crash had pushed smaller European economies like Greece to the brink of ruin with joblessness at record highs and politicians threatening ‘Grexit.’
Brussels agreed to provide a €110 billion rescue package for Greece to cover the country’s borrowing until 2013.
In return, Athens promised swingeing austerity and tax hikes worth €28 billion over four years.
Protesters flooded the streets holding up swastikas and posters of Merkel dressed as Adolf Hitler, politicians demanded that Germany write off Greek debts, while others demanded compensation from Berlin for atrocities during the Second World War.
Economists warned that austerity would only prolong the crisis, but Merkel refused to back down.
In early 2015, Greeks elected a new anti-austerity government led by Alexis Tsipras of the left-wing Syriza party, who demanded more debt relief and more spending.
Angela Merkel’s tough love for Greece opened old wounds, with Greeks turning out to protest over Berlin’s harsh lending policy which demanded Athens make austerity cuts
Tsipras put a new loan deal proposed by the country’s creditors to a referendum which was rejected by the electorate with a resounding no.
It prompted Greece to slip further into the financial abyss as it became the first developed country to fail to make an IMF loan repayment on time.
Tsipras was forced to backtrack by the threat of utter financial disaster and he signed the country’s third bailout package, killing off any future attempts at such brinkmanship by Athens.
Merkel used her influence as the leader of Europe’s largest economy to force Athens to slash spending, including support for pensions, health care and education.
Economists disagree on Merkel’s handling of the crisis.
‘She was at the heart of the design of the flawed Greek program, which not only imposed austerity, but most importantly resisted restructuring the debt in order to save the German and French banks,’ said Joseph E. Stiglitz, a Nobel laureate economist at Columbia University in New York.
‘The rhetoric that she used suggested that the crisis was caused by irresponsible behavior by Greece, rather than irresponsibility on the part of the lender,’ he told the New York Times.
Merkel was issuing loans for debts she knew Athens could never repay, but she was keeping the Eurozone together.
‘If the euro fails, Europe fails. We can’t let that happen,’ Merkel said.
She also avoided the impossible political sell to the German taxpayer of simply writing off the debt.
Domestically her position played well as she cast Greece as the naughty school child, even accusing its people of laziness, while Germany was prudent and industrious.
However, the policy has proved profitable for Germany, earning it a total of €2.9 billion between 2010 and 2017.
Many credit Merkel with holding the Eurozone together when it faced its greatest crisis, but others say the belt-tightening left countries like Greece ill-equipped to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic.
In the decade leading to the pandemic, average GDP growth in the euro zone was as low as 0.9 per cent largely down to German-driven austerity.