Many times, when I meet new people on campus and they find out that I’m German, I get a reaction that goes something like this: “Oh, I love Angela Merkel” or “Angela Merkel is such a great leader.” I then often struggle to respond in a way that doesn’t go beyond the scope of small talk. “Oh, that’s great,” I often reply, but what I really want to say is: “Oh you know, I am actually not a big fan of her and her politics.” And there are good reasons for that. Sure, you might say, against the Donald Trumps, Vladimir Putins and Theresa Mays of this world, Merkel appears to be the archangel of political leaders. Her popularity in the United States has risen even more after Trump’s election, Merkel increasingly being declared the “leader of the free world” by numerous media outlets. But this perception is largely based on a comparative perspective, where there simply aren’t (or at least there don’t appear to be) any better solutions around on the international level.
A favorable view of Merkel is thus based not on an assessment of her politics, but often only by comparison. When you take a look at German domestic politics, the verdict on Merkel changes. Merkel is the leader of the Christian Democratic Union of Germany, one of two major parties that dominate the parliamentary political system, and, as the name suggests, represents the conservative rather than the liberal side of the political spectrum. These conservative values also translate into her stance on policies. Merkel and her party oppose same-sex marriage, for example, and are probably the major reason why, in her 11 years as the head of government, marriage equality has been rejected, even though all other parties in the German parliament support such a move. The result is ongoing discrimination against same-sex couples in a variety of ways. They are not even allowed to adopt children.
Would it be too much to assume that on this liberal campus fewer people would admire Merkel were they actually aware of her politics?
It is not just her politics, however. The way Merkel conducts her politics is equally egregious. Merkel is known for her indecisiveness, generally only making decisions after public opinion has already shown a strong inclination in one or the other direction. In fact, a few years ago, the German news magazine Der Spiegel published an article showing that parts of public opinion research reports literally ended up in Merkel’s policy statements. Sure, the head of government is there to represent the people and make sure that the will of the people is being translated into actual policies. But leading only from behind rather than shaping public debate and raising important questions that offer a with a vision of the future and the possibility of change should not be considered a sufficient way of governing.
The problem with Merkel is that her indecisiveness is a symptom of her approach to governing in general. She is focused on maintaining the status quo instead of shaping the future. Merkel has no vision and provides no opportunity for change and no real leadership. That kind of direction is desperately needed as Germany faces growing social inequality, growing international challenges such as climate change and the disruptive effects of globalization and growing European challenges such as the spread of populism. When Merkel runs for the chancellor position in the election later this year, she and her party will center the campaign around her approach to governing. The message sent to voters will portray Merkel — who is known to many Germans as “Mutti,” or mother, because of how she governs the country — as representing security and continuity, opposed to the major opponent, Social Democrat Martin Schulz, whose platform is based on the issue of social justice and on promises of change from the Merkelian politics as usual that have shaped German politics for the last 11 years.
Of course, my perspective here is heavily influenced by my own age. As a 23-year-old German, I have spent almost half my life under Merkel as the head of government, and I am tired of her policies that bring no major change or thoroughly address the domestic issues Germans are facing. I can see the appeal of politics that focus on continuity and security and promise to maintain the status quo, and it surely resonates well with the older generation in particular. For my generation, however, who increasingly identify not only as German but also as European citizens, the time for change has come, and a stronger vision for Germany — strengthened cooperation through the European Union and Germany’s role in the union — is needed to overcome those crises that threaten European stability. And I sincerely believe that Angela Merkel does not and simply cannot deliver that vision.