By Dr Chennamaneni Ramesh
Angela Markel’s very presence as a Protestant, Scientist, East German woman at the helm of the Christian Democratic Union, a male-dominated, largely Catholic party, with its roots in West Germany, has changed not only her party but arguably also the German society. Her policies have strongly influenced European and international affairs in such a way that she will go down in history as a very special leader.
Chancellor Merkel is Germany’s first female political leader who helped turn the deeply traditional Christian Democratic Union into “one of the pillars of the new German consensus”, according to the European Council on Foreign Relations. This has, in turn, resulted in new policy directions in her last four terms of 16 years on everything from economic and social programmes, European and international relations, refugee issues, minimum wages, energy reform to family and women’s rights – including the recent decision to introduce female quotas in boardrooms.
George Packer, a US journalist writes, “she doesn’t need to win every argument. She doesn’t have to get in the last word. She quietly assesses the different factors involved in a given situation and then decides which way she wants to go, and does it quietly and without fanfare. It’s a different kind of political style that Germans had not known until Merkel.”
East German Background
Merkel’s parents, Horst and Herlind Kasner, met in Hamburg, where her father was a theology student and her mother a teacher of Latin and English. After completing his education, her father accepted a pastorate in Quitzow, Brandenburg, and the family relocated to East Germany just weeks after Merkel’s birth. In 1957, they moved again to Templin, where Merkel finished high school in 1973. Later that year, she went to Leipzig to study physics at Karl-Marx-University (now University of Leipzig). After completing her Masters in 1978, she worked as a faculty member at the Central Institute of Physical Chemistry of the Academy of Sciences in East Berlin. She was awarded a doctorate for her thesis on quantum chemistry in 1986.
With the entry of Mikhail Gorbachev as Party Chief in the Soviet Union and his politics of Perestroika and Glasnost, gradually a movement for self-determination and democracy started in many eastern European countries. This peaceful revolution ultimately led to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Merkel, who actively participated in this movement, joined the newly founded Democratic Awakening Party and in February 1990, became the party’s press spokesperson.
Later on, she joined the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) of Germany and in the first post-reunification election, in December 1990, won a seat in the Bundestag (Parliament) representing Stralsund-Rügen-Grimmen. She was appointed Minister for Women and Youth by Chancellor Helmut Kohl in January 1991. Kohl’s choice of the young female political newcomer from East Germany appealed to several demographics and earned Merkel the nickname “Kohls Mädchen” (Kohl’s girl). After the 1994 reunified German elections, Merkel became Minister of Environment, Conservation, and Reactor Safety, and she presided over the first United Nations Climate Conference in Berlin in March–April 1995.
Merkel was elected Chancellor in 2005 as head of a ‘grand coalition’ government of CDU and rival Social Democratic Party (SPD). In 2007, she hosted the World Economic Summit of the G8 industrialised countries. “I have been fighting for climate action for over ten years now and I consider it to be a tough struggle,” Merkel said in an interview before the G8 summit. Asked about the reservations of US President George W Bush against a 2°C warming limit, she said: “You can be assured that I won’t accept trusted scientific findings such as those by the IPCC to be watered down.”
Eventually, she persuaded G8 leaders to accept the science of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and got them to agree to the necessity of binding CO2 reduction targets. Merkel also successfully persuaded the EU to adopt emissions reduction targets. The German press dubs her as “Klimakanzlerin” (Climate Chancellor).
Merkel’s style of government has been characterised by pragmatism, although critics have decried the absence of a clear stance and ideology. She demonstrated her willingness to adopt the positions of her political opponents if they proved to be sensible and popular. One notable example was her decision to phase out nuclear power in the wake of the Fukushima accident in 2011 after having passed a law to prolong the operating life of Germany’s nuclear power plants only two years earlier. After a landmark ruling of Germany’s Constitutional Court, her government proposed to pull forward the national target date for climate neutrality to 2045. This remains one of her remarkable achievements.
Brilliance in Economic Reforms
When the global economic crisis loomed since 2008, unlike other European leaders, Merkel turned it into an opportunity. She adroitly fended off a long-term recession in Germany by introducing stimulus packages and shortening working hours, whereby workers worked less but had their earnings topped up by the government rather than the business. As a result, Germany flourished in the crisis (helped also by other favourable conditions such as low interest on bonds and Germany’s strong position as an exporter).
In Germany, the share of industry in gross value added is 22.9%, making it the highest among the G7 countries. The strongest sectors are vehicle construction, electrical, engineering and chemical industries. Together with China and the US, Germany is one of the three largest exporting nations. In 2017, it exported goods worth 1,278.9 billion euros.
Judging by the importance of foreign trade for gross domestic product, Germany is the most open economy among the G7 states. The foreign trade quota is currently 84.4% – that’s the sum of imports and exports in relation to GDP. In comparison, the US quota is 26.7%. The most interesting development making Germany nearly full employment state is the fact that medium-sized enterprises form the heart of its economy — in other words, companies with an annual turnover of less than 50 million Euros and less than 500 employees. This sector of the economy embraces 99.6% of German companies. More than 1,000 of these companies are so-called hidden champions, i.e., publicly less well-known international market leaders.
However, Merkel’s handling of the euro-zone debt crisis led to criticism of an approach many considered too strict. Indeed, even the broadly pro-austerity International Monetary Fund director Christine Lagarde drew attention to the harm that harsh austerity measures could inflict on an already-damaged economy. But the leader of Europe’s most populous and economically powerful country continued to enjoy strong domestic approval numbers.
Merkel also faced Europe’s gravest refugee crisis since World War II when hundreds of thousands of migrants fleeing conflicts in Syria, Afghanistan, and elsewhere flocked to the European Union. More than one million migrants entered Germany in 2015, and Merkel’s party paid a steep political price for her stance on refugees. As the backlash against migrants manifested itself in street protests and at the ballot box, the right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) was among the parties to capitalise on the rising tide of populism and xenophobia. In September 2016, the AfD came second—ahead of the CDU—in regional elections in Merkel’s home state, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern but Merkel continued to tack toward the centre as she announced that she would seek a fourth term. That contest saw Merkel win her fourth term as Chancellor. She was viewed as “the woman who saved the dignity of Europe.”
For Merkel, this decision was critical. While populists were manoeuvring to use the issue to their advantage, she viewed it as the hour of truth for a Christian democracy. Many Germans believe that she has a strong set of values, and she understands Germany’s history exceedingly well, in part because she comes from East Germany. In this context, it is the Hitler regime, Second World War and holocaust, the division of the German nation, decades of the Cold War and their implications on millions of people.
This is hailed as a historical decision by the Germans and the international community. After over 50 years, the Bundeswehr (armed forces) abolished compulsory conscription in July 2011, as part of plans to reduce the size of the military from around 2,40,000 soldiers to a professional and much fitter army of 1,70,000. It was pushed through by the then Defence Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, with Merkel’s backing, despite the opposition they faced from conservative politicians. The Bundeswehr now has a child-care service and flexible working hours, underlining Merkel’s support for family life.
In an effort to support couples with children, “Elterngeld” or parent benefit was introduced by Merkel’s government in 2007. It is Germany’s version of maternity pay but is available to either parent and aimed at lessening the financial burden on families and boosting Germany’s very low birthrate. The tax-financed scheme allows parents to share up to 14 months off after the birth of a child and gives each up to 67% of their salary during that time. Merkel staunchly fought the opponents of Elterngeld within her own conservative alliance, having declared it to be one of the planks of her government policy, defending, in particular, the right for men to take time off to bring up their children. The policy has had a major impact on family life in Germany, particularly on the lives of working mothers.
While it has been driven by her coalition partners, the Social Democrats, it is still considered to Merkel’s credit that a minimum wage was introduced on her watch, following years of campaigning in an effort to alleviate social injustice. The €8.50-an-hour rate was introduced on January 1, 2015, and has played a positive role to help tackle growing social divisions and deal with increasing wage inequality. It also aimed at boosting the wages of those who have effectively endured a pay freeze as employers argued low wages were necessary for German companies to maintain the competitive edge.
Merkel has scored in her foreign policy endeavours, most recently ensuring that she is in constant dialogue with the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, over the Crimea dispute. Thanks to her East German upbringing, she knows Russian culture well and speaks excellent Russian. She has emphasised to other western leaders that pressurising him too much could push Russia into political and economic chaos, which would not be good for Russia, Germany or Europe.
During her chancellorship, Germany grew into a foreign policy role which postwar Germany had never dreamt of: being a foreign political actor, being the central balancing power in Europe, leading the European Union. India and Germany have a “Strategic Partnership”, since 2001, which has been further strengthened with the Inter-Governmental Consultations at the level of Head of Governments.
(The author is MLA, and Humboldt-Expert in Agriculture, Environment and Cooperation)