A day after the 2016 US elections, Angela Merkel offered the newly elected president what observers described as a thinly-veiled warning: cooperation only “on the basis” of shared democratic values.
Just two weeks later, she announced plans to run for a fourth term with pressure mounting on her to become “leader of the free world” and the West’s main defender.
It’s now the end of an era and no one can say for sure what will come next.
Merkel has been in power for nearly 16 years and throughout that time she has been a staunch defender of keeping the European Union together, becoming the sometimes controversial face of a crisis manager.
Her early life was marked by a move to East Germany as an infant when her father accepted a job as a pastor there.
The time she spent growing up in a socialist state influenced her view of Western values, says Stefan Kornelius, Merkel’s official biographer and foreign editor at the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung.
“She really honed a very positive view of the West and the Democratic world and Western ideals which she held extremely high,” he said. She became “deeply convinced that open societies do function best”.
Merkel received a doctorate in quantum chemistry in 1986, working as a research assistant before entering politics ahead of the fall of the Berlin Wall. She first entered politics during the Revolutions in 1989, joining a small East German party.
After German reunification she would become a member of the Christian Democratic Union, serving as Woman and Youth Minister under Chancellor Helmut Kohl.
“Until the age of 35, I only knew the European Union from the outside, and have only been an insider since 1990,” Merkel told the European parliament in 2007. “From the outside, the European Union is a historic success story without precedent.”
“Yet from the inside, too, the European Union is a wonderful house. In fact, I find it even more beautiful from the inside than from the outside…I don’t ever want to leave this house. I am convinced that there is no better place for us to live than in our shared European home,” Merkel said.
She has been credited with keeping that house together, fighting for the European Union to remain intact during both the financial and migrant crises.
“The German government, under Angela Merkel’s leadership, had a decisive influence on all of the recent crises in Europe, but most visibly and significantly looking at the global financial crisis and its effects on Europe,” said Jana Puglierin, head of the European Council on Foreign Relations’ Berlin office.
Many countries had large government debts when the US financial crisis turned into a global recession in 2009 and the crisis called into question the strength of the eurozone as many southern European countries, such as Greece, struggled.
Germany paid the largest amount of the EU’s first bailout of Greece in 2010 and throughout the crisis, the European Central Bank, EU and International Monetary Fund bailouts required unpopular austerity measures that led to violent protests in Greece.
Germany was instrumental in the bailout negotiations with Merkel a supporter of the tough measures. That role in managing the crisis — which included three bailouts totalling nearly €330 million — is largely viewed as a success, though not one without criticism.
The financial crisis in Greece led to a decline in household income and the harsh austerity measures included cuts to healthcare expenditure. A 2018 study published in The Lancet said the measures had led in part to an increase in mortality in the country.
The demands on Greece were also heavily criticised by some in Germany with the newspaper Der Spiegel describing measures as “a catalogue of atrocities.”
“I know that people were very angry with me, [calling me] such a bad person for actually imposing these stringent conditions on Greece and Portugal etc. But now you see that reforms are taking place,” Merkel told the World Economic Forum in 2020, stating the improvement came due to the “stringency and toughness” of the reforms made.
“Germany has not only made friends during that time, there was a lot of criticism when it came to austerity policy. But in the end, I think Germany did just enough to keep the union together, to keep Greece on board,” said Puglierin.
Merkel told the World Economic Forum in 2015 that “everything we do politically is oriented towards Greece remaining part of the Euro area.” She said that jobs needed to be created to get out of the crisis.
“There are two things that need to be in place: we need to show solidarity and we will continue to show solidarity coupled with the readiness to shoulder one’s own responsibility. I’m convinced that Greece will continue to show that sense of responsibility,” Merkel said.
That same year, European solidarity would take centre stage as more than a million refugees, many fleeing wars in Syria and Afghanistan would arrive in the bloc.
The influx of refugees to Italy and Greece quickly derailed into a crisis and Merkel defended relocating migrants throughout the EU even as eastern European nations pushed back against it.
“If Europe fails on the question of refugees, if this close link with universal civil rights is broken, then it won’t be the Europe we wished for,” German broadcaster Deutsche Welle quoted Merkel as stating in August 2015.
She insisted “we can do this” as Germany took in hundreds of thousands of refugees during the crisis.
This contributed to the rise of the far-right Alternative fur Deutschland (AfD), with the party greatly increasing its support in 2016 with an anti-immigration platform.
Early in 2016, Merkel was also negotiating other solutions, helping to strike a deal with Turkish officials to prevent migrants from arriving in Europe.
Merkel’s centre-right bloc still lost 65 seats in the 2017 elections, after reaching a high of 311 seats in 2013. Her party’s support has fallen in the past several weeks even as she campaigns for her would-be successor Armin Laschet.
She has nonetheless remained popular in Germany and in Europe, even though the COVID-19 crisis, with some experts saying that if she ran once again she could win the election. Many had credited her background as a scientist with her steady leadership during the pandemic.
Merkel and France’s Emmanuel Macron presented the plan that would include debt-sharing among EU nations in the pandemic stimulus plan.
“People are very happy in Germany. They don’t like very much interruption. They don’t like too much change,” said Dr Horst Lochel, Professor of Economics at Frankfurt School of Finance and Management. He added that Merkel has been a pragmatic yet flexible leader.
“She also has a kind of a feeling for Eastern Europe to balance the interests there. Whether right or wrong is another story, but to balance interests,” he said.
While she is credited with helping to negotiate a ceasefire between Ukraine and Russia, her stance on the Nord Stream 2 oil pipeline has been criticised as bringing Germany closer to Vladimir Putin.
She’s been criticised for keeping Hungarian President Viktor Orban in the European People’s Party for too long, pandering to far-right leaders in order to keep the union together as well.
For most, her legacy will be synonymous with stability, leading Germany and Europe through myriad crises with flexibility and caution in her decisions. Her ability to balance interests and manage negotiations is unlikely to be recreated by another leader in Europe.
“You can blame her for not being too decisive, not being too visionary, not being a hands-on politician, pumping your fists on the table,” said Kornelius.
“But then again we cannot praise her for the attitude which is exactly that caution, and this kind of low key un-ideological balancing thing which you get. You can’t have it both ways.”
Many say her absence will leave a void in Europe, as politics becomes more complicated and less about balancing interests.
“No one can replace Angela Merkel, at least for the foreseeable future, because Angela Merkel had built her reputation and her political weight over 16 years,” said Puglierin at the European Council on Foreign Relations.
“And I think just in terms of experience and in terms of political weight, none of the leaders in Europe is able to basically follow in her footsteps.”
This is article is part of our special mini-series to help you understand the German election.