Germany’s golden age is over, most Europeans think, as Merkel leaves

Chancellor Angela Merkel, a popular leader, shakes hands with the crowd alongside former U.S. President Barack Obama during a visit to the U.S.

JIM WATSON | AFP | Getty Images

Under the leadership of Chancellor Angela Merkel, Germany’s power and influence in European — and global — affairs has been indisputable.

Now she’s leaving office after 16 years, many Europeans believe the country’s “golden age” is over — including a majority of Germans, according to a recent poll.

The survey, conducted by the European Council on Foreign Relations think tank in 12 EU countries in early summer with the results published this week, found that Europeans still regard Merkel as a unifying force, and expect Germany to continue to provide leadership within the EU. Nonetheless, there is pessimism at home and abroad about Germany’s post-Merkel future.

The poll found that many Europeans view Germany as a declining power — no more so than in Germany, where a majority (52%) hold the view that their country is past its “golden age.” Only 15% of respondents in Germany said they believe their country is still in its “golden age” today, with 9% of respondents believing that it is still to come.

Across Europe more broadly, a third of Europeans (34%) surveyed said that Germany’s star is fading, 21% said it is in its “golden age” today, and just 10% believed this period is in the future.

The data highlights uncertainty in both Germany and its neighbors over the future of the country, and its de facto leadership of the EU, once Merkel leaves office after the federal election on Sept. 26.

Merkel Vs. Macron

Despite some controversial policies, Merkel, age 67, is leaving office on her terms. She remains a popular figurehead in Europe, and far more so than her French counterpart Emmanuel Macron, although analysts expect Macron to try to fill something of a leadership vacuum left by Merkel.

When the ECFR asked respondents who they would vote for in a hypothetical contest between Germany’s Merkel and France’s Macron for an EU president role, the think tank found a majority of Europeans (41%) would vote for Merkel, and just 14% would vote for Macron (the remaining 45% said they didn’t know, or wouldn’t vote).

The highest support for Merkel in this hypothetical election was found in the Netherlands (58%), Spain (57%) and Portugal (52%). Even among the French, 32% would vote for Merkel and 20% for Macron.

It is perhaps not surprising that there is such an enduring fondness for Merkel. She is seen as a stable pair of hands, pragmatic and cool-headed in a crisis — and she’s had a few of those to deal with in her time in office.

Merkel has guided Germany, the euro zone and wider EU through several traumas including the financial crisis of 2008-2009, the subsequent sovereign debt crisis in the euro zone that peaked around 2012 and the migration crisis of 2015-2016. Most recently, she has played a prominent role in Europe’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, and along with Macron oversaw the EU recovery plan.

France’s President Emmanuel Macron (2nd L) and Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel (R) look at US President Donald Trump (front L) and Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (front R) walking past them during a family photo as part of the NATO summit at the Grove hotel in Watford, northeast of London on December 4, 2019.

Christian Hartman | AFP | Getty Images

Merkel’s policies during periods of crisis have not always won her friends, however. She became something of a hate figure in Greece during its debt crisis as Germany advocated that strict austerity measures should be imposed on Athens as a condition of international bailouts.

Meanwhile, her decision to allow hundreds of thousands of migrants, mainly from Syria, to enter Germany during the migration crisis also caused consternation in the country, and was largely seen as boosting public support for the right-wing Alternative for Germany party.

Future leadership

How Germany’s relationship with the rest of the EU, and de facto leadership of the bloc, might change once Merkel leaves office is one of the great unknowns of her departure.

In the ECFR’s latest report entitled “Beyond Merkelism: What Europeans expect from post-election Germany,” published Tuesday, authors Piotr Buras and Jana Puglierin note that the post-Merkel political leadership in Germany will have no choice but to change its role in, and relationship with, the EU.

“‘Merkelism’ is no longer sustainable, and Germany’s next chancellor will have to find another way forward,” Piotr Buras, co-author and head of ECFR’s Warsaw office, commented.

“Merkel may have adroitly maintained the status quo across the continent over the past 15 years, but the challenges that Europe faces now – the pandemic, climate change, and geopolitical competition – require radical solutions, not cosmetic changes. What the EU needs now is a visionary Germany that will stand up for the bloc’s values and defend its place in the world.”

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