Ten years of Merkel: from Mädchen to Europe’s leader

2015 is a historic year for Germany: 25 years ago East and West Germany were reunited after 40 years of separation.

The reunification paved the way for yet another milestone as, in 2005, the Christian Democrats’ Angela Merkel, raised and educated in the East German Democratic Republic, was elected the first female Chancellor in German history.

We take a look back at ten years of Merkel as Chancellor.

Started as a reformer

When Chancellor Merkel entered office ten years ago, she had to emancipate herself from her image as long-time Chancellor Helmut Kohl’s Mädchen.

She had served under Kohl for seven years as a minister in his cabinet, and was a maverick in her conservative, Western German party: from East Germany, divorced, and with a PhD in Physics.

She won the chancellorship from Gerhard Schröder of the Social Democrats in 2005 after a hard and close election campaign. But she was lucky. The country was in the middle of the biggest labour market reform in its history. The centre-left coalition’s Agenda 2010 succeeded with these reforms, laying the ground for Germany’s economic renewal and today’s success.

Became a pragmatic Chancellor

Nevertheless, Merkel’s start as Chancellor was bumpy.

She nearly lost the election after positioning herself as an even more radical reformer – learning the lesson that German voters do not love radical reformers.

She abandoned her positions and started to manage the nation with a very pragmatic approach – something that voters loved, as she found out when she won the elections in 2009 and 2013 following terms in government with different coalition partners.

Since 2013, she has virtually neutralised the centre-left opposition by making it the junior coalition partner. Meanwhile, the popularity of her party and her coalition have been stable.

Most voters have happily accepted her policy changes – such as the abolition of conscription, or the phasing out of nuclear energy after the Fukushima disaster– as long as they were in tune with the national mood. Germans started to talk of Merkel’s down-to-earth style of management as being mother-like – she became ‘Mutti’.

Europe’s leader

The financial and eurozone crises led to Germany taking a new role as a leader in Europe.

Merkel, with her calm, scientific demeanour, was the right person, in the right place, at the right time. She was able to lead Europe softly through difficult times.

This only changed recently when the EU effectively imposed austerity measures on countries such as Greece, leading to some of the sharpest disagreements in the EU in many years.

But Merkel’s austerity was and is welcomed by many German taxpayers (and some in other EU countries too).

Another term?

At the start of the summer, another term seemed a strong possibility or even a probability, despite some unhappiness from business and free-market supporters over the Merkel government’s economic and social policies.

It seemed that another term would be there for the taking, if she wanted it. Only a few weeks later, the refugee crisis seems to be another turning point.

Now, Merkel receives much sympathy for her solidarity with Syrian refugees (see picture). Photographs of refugees holding posters with the plea ‘Mutti save us’ show the appeal she and Germany have after a decade of growth.

At the same time, the polls show that the obvious lack of any plan for solving the crisis now divides the electorate and is undermining support for her and her party.

The populist right is on the rise and the election in 2017 looks very far away. So ironically, the refugee challenge and Merkel’s clear position could decide her future and define her legacy, after criticisms of being too pragmatic.

Words  Christian Thams (Burson-Marsteller Berlin)
Photos  CC/Flickr – European People’s Party; (c) European Union 2015; CC/Flickr Freedom House

This is an edited version of a blog originally posted on the Burson-Marsteller blog

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