A year without Merkel

A year ago now, Angela Merkel left power in Germany for good amid immense popularity both at home and abroad. On December 8, 2021, the new Social Democratic Chancellor, Olaf Scholz, took office, and the Christian Democrat retired calmly after 16 years of government, between plans to rest, reflect and enjoy his halo as a great statesman. She even coined the expression the Merkel era to designate her four terms, such was the impression that she was closing a historical stage under her calm and quiet leadership.

But the Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24 changed everything, and Merkel’s reputation has been badly damaged. A year after her departure, she is accused of complacency with Vladimir Putin and of having opted for the very German doctrine of Wandel durch Handel (change through trade) despite being aware of the authoritarian nature of the Russian regime.

The former leader says that in 2021 she saw that, for the Russian president, she was “finished” and could not stop the war

“Almost the entire German political class thought it was necessary to have a smooth relationship with Russia, not just Mrs. Merkel,” recalls Daniel Mertens, a political scientist at the University of Osnabrück. It was his predecessor as chancellor, Social Democrat Gerhard Schröder, who in 2005 agreed with Putin to build the Nord Stream 1 gas pipeline to bring Russian natural gas to Germany via the Baltic Sea. Merkel became chancellor that year, inheriting the project, later backing the construction of a second pipeline, Nord Stream 2 despite the war in Donbass and Russia’s illegal annexation of Ukraine in 2014. Neither it works now.

“The Nord Streams represent the energy dependency that Germany developed with respect to Russia, and now it is clear that maintaining the plan was a mistake by Merkel and her government,” continues the political scientist Mertens.According to a recent poll by the Civey demographic institute for the Funke group newspapers, 71% of Germans would not want to see Angela Merkel at the helm of government again.

In the face of criticism, the former chancellor has chosen to justify herself in interviews granted these days to trusted journalists. She appeared on the cover of Der Spiegel magazine, where she told that in her retired life she watches television series, including The Crown, and she writes her memoirs; and she took the opportunity to say that in 2021, the year of her long-announced withdrawal, she already lacked the political capital necessary to stop Putin’s preparations for war. “I no longer had the strength to impose myself,” she says, to organize, for example, a meeting between the Russian president and the leaders of the EU at the end of last year, when the war escalation was coming.

Faced with criticism, he has chosen to justify himself in interviews with trusted journalists

Regarding her last meeting with Vladimir Putin in August 2021 in Moscow, Merkel says that she had the “very clear” impression of being “finished” in the eyes of the Russian president in terms of politics and power. “And for Putin, only power matters,” Angela Merkel stressed. The former foreign minister considers that the economic sanctions imposed on Moscow after 2014 allowed Ukraine to “prepare” for a possible aggression.

More than her accommodation to a pragmatic policy toward Moscow in which she was not alone, it is Merkel’s reluctance to admit mistake that fuels the criticism. In mid-November, her co-religionist and her former finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, lashed out at her for that attitude. “We did not want to see” the true mood of the Russian regime, acknowledged Schäuble, who stated that he does not place Merkel on his list of “great chancellors” along with the conservatives Konrad Adenauer and Helmut Kohl, and the social democrat Willy Brandt.“There is his Russian politics, the Nord Stream 2, the bumpy roads, the climate politics. What kind of Germany did he leave us?”, criticized this week the Bild tabloid, the most widely read newspaper in Germany. Indeed, the former chancellor is also blamed for not having undertaken the modernization of infrastructures that this country needs years ago, nor for having advanced in climate protection. No one seems to remember her good management in the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic or her humanitarian attitude when opening the borders to refugees in 2015.

Curiously, and despite everything, in the Civey poll, the one who loses out in the comparison, albeit narrowly, is the current head of government, Olaf Scholz. 43% of those surveyed believe that Angela Merkel was a better chancellor than him, 41% think the opposite and 16% declared themselves undecided.