Merkel departs, opening a new chapter for Germany and Europe
By Katrin Bennhold and Melissa Eddy
It was vintage Angela Merkel: The woman who has dominated European politics for the better part of two decades handed over her office to the next German chancellor, thanked her staff, then walked to the door and made an exit — her final one.
After 16 years as leader of Germany and unofficial leader of Europe, Merkel on Wednesday left the office she first took over when President George W. Bush was still in the White House in a characteristically understated way.
“Congratulations dear Mr. Chancellor, dear Olaf Scholz,” Merkel told her successor in a small gathering at the chancellery. “I know from my own experience that it is a moving moment to be elected into this office.”
“It is an exciting, fulfilling duty, a challenging duty, too,” Merkel said, “but if you embrace it with joy it is perhaps one of the most beautiful duties there are to be responsible for this country.”
Long the world’s most powerful female leader, Merkel was the central political figure in Germany and Europe through four U.S. presidents and five British and eight Italian prime ministers. Her steady accretion of authority drew admirers and detractors alike, but she remained a singular source of stability for the continent through repeated crises.
Criticized for having failed to groom a successor, Merkel, a Christian Democrat, may well have done so in the end. Only — much to the frustration of her own party — it was a member of her traditional opposition, Scholz, a Social Democrat and her last finance minister, who was sworn in Wednesday after a campaign that promised continuity.
Still, Merkel’s departure marks the end of a dominant era of German politics that she herself called “eventful and often very challenging” — and the beginning of a new and uncertain chapter for Germany and Europe.
“It was a big period during which you were chancellor of this country and you did big things,” Scholz said after she had formally handed over the chancellery and its staff to him. “There were some big crises we had to deal with, some of them we weathered together.”
“That welded us together and not just these events,” Scholz added. “Between us there was always very trusting collaboration. That is good, I believe, because it shows that we are a strong, capable democracy in which there is a lot of consensus between democrats, cooperation.”
The full imprint that Merkel, a pastor’s daughter from the former communist East, made on her country and continent will reveal itself only in the years ahead. But for now the fulcrum of her legacy is widely considered to be her decision in 2015 and 2016 to welcome more than 1 million asylum seekers into Germany.
The decision sharply divided her country — particularly along the old East-West fault line — and fueled the emergence of a far-right nationalist movement that grew stronger than at any time since the Nazis.
But it also softened Germany’s image abroad and established her country as a liberal beacon as populism threatened the very foundations of the West’s democratic order.
“Angela Merkel changed Germany’s image in the world — in a way she saved Germany’s honor,” said Naika Foroutan, an immigration expert and professor at the Humboldt University in Berlin. “It went against all expectations that this explicit humanitarian gesture would come from Germany. That symbolic turn, that Germany, the country with the ugly face, proved the rock and took people in, is associated with Angela Merkel.”
The other period that defined her time in power was Europe’s debt crisis, and her tightfisted prescription for long years of painful budget cuts as a way out of it — something many southern Europeans still have not forgiven her for more than a decade later.
“In parts of Europe Merkel is seen much more negatively than in other parts of the world,” Foroutan said.
The same is true in Germany itself: Wildly popular in the far more populous West of the country, Merkel is hated in swathes of the former Communist East, where she grew up. The East has become the stronghold of the Alternative for Germany, a party created on her watch and the first far-right party to have made it into the German parliament since World War II.
Much to her own party’s irritation, Merkel said that she would “sleep tight at night” knowing that Scholz was running the country. She invited Scholz to accompany her to a Group of 20 meeting in Rome in October to introduce him to leaders like President Joe Biden. She has involved him in every major decision since the election two months ago. Last the two jointly presided over a COVID emergency meeting with the governors of Germany’s 16 states.
During a military farewell ceremony for Merkel last week, she wished Scholz — whom she called “Dear Olaf” — “all the best and a lucky hand and much success.” He promptly replied with a compliment of his own. “Angela Merkel was a successful chancellor,” he said the same night on Twitter. “She tirelessly stood up for her country and during 16 years in which a lot changed, stayed true to herself.”
Many Germans expressed pride in how smoothly Merkel handled the transition, drawing direct comparisons to the refusal of former President Donald Trump and his supporters to recognize the election of Biden.
“We are witnessing a very good democratic transition where there is a basic consensus,” said Christoph Heusgen, Merkel’s former chief foreign policy adviser, who this week took over the presidency of the Munich Security Conference. “I am a little proud of our democracy the way it’s managed this transition without schadenfreude, without hatred, without malice.”
Earlier on Wednesday, Merkel had watched from the visitor’s gallery in parliament — where her own family had sat four times to watch her sworn in — as lawmakers voted Scholz into office. She got a standing ovation from the chamber, before quietly slipping out a back door.
From the moment she took the oath of office in 2005, Merkel embodied a string of firsts — first chancellor born after World War II, first to hail from the former East, first woman. Now she has also made history becoming the first modern chancellor to leave office, not by losing an election or a parliamentary vote, but by deciding she had served long enough.