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The end of the Angela Merkel era is widely seen as a moment of change. Supporters of the outgoing German chancellor fear the end of the stability they believe she created and, perhaps, a reduction of Germany’s power—within the European Union and beyond—that they see as flowing from her personal influence and stature. Critics of Merkel, by contrast, hope that Germany will now finally undertake the reforms that they blame her for neglecting during her tenure—investing to make Germany zukunftsfähig, or “future proof,” for instance, and adapting German foreign policy to an era of sharpened great-power competition.
The reality, however, is that less is likely to change than either side hopes or fears. The election on September 26 produced an inconclusive result: the Social Democrats received just under 26 percent of the vote and the Christian Democrats just over 24 percent. The new chancellor will be either the Social Democrat Olaf Scholz or the Christian Democrat Armin Laschet, both of whom have promised a continuation of Merkelism and even tried to mimic Merkel’s style. Both are centrist figures within their own parties, and little of substance distinguishes them.
Regardless of who becomes chancellor, the next government will be a coalition—likely comprised of three parties for the first time since 1957—forged through compromise in negotiations that are just now beginning. As a result, the government is unlikely to diverge dramatically from the centrist policies of the grand coalition of Christian Democrats and Social Democrats that has governed Germany for 12 of Merkel’s 16 years as chancellor. Although there will be some changes in domestic policy depending on whether the next coalition is led by Scholz or Laschet, German foreign policy will not change much. In short, the Merkel consensus is likely to live on after Merkel—disappointing those who had hoped for a new approach to the eurozone or to authoritarian states such as China.
During her reelection campaign in 2013, when she had been in power for eight years, Merkel ran on the slogan “You know me.” Merkel has now been chancellor for 16 years, longer than any of her predecessors except Helmut Kohl. Yet German voters still don’t really know her. An unusually uncommunicative politician whose style is sometimes compared to that of a monarch, Merkel has made little effort to justify or even explain her policies, which she is known for presenting as alternativlos, or “without alternative.”
Merkel’s political style seems to have grown out of her childhood in East Germany, where she “learned to keep quiet,” as she once told an interviewer. Growing up in a seminary in a small town 50 miles north of Berlin, where her father was a pastor, Merkel learned early on to be careful about what she said outside of her family’s “protected idyll,” as the journalist and author Stefan Kornelius put it in an authorized biography. “The mystery that is Merkel has its roots in that doomed republic,” he wrote.
Merkel appears to have re-created that “protected idyll” in the chancellery in Berlin, where she has a tight circle of trusted and loyal advisers. When the reporting on Merkel or the analysis of her positions is based on information from these advisers, it tends to reflect what Merkel wants people to think she is thinking. When the reporting or analysis is based on information from people outside this tight circle, it often reflects its authors’ own views, projected onto her. In other words, much of what is written about Merkel is either spin or speculation.
The reporting on Merkel is also often based on what she says rather than what she does. A good example of this occurred after President Donald Trump’s election in 2016, when some analysts and members of the media declared Merkel the new “leader of free world”—not, for example, because Germany had suddenly decided to provide security guarantees to other democracies as the United States did during the Cold War but on the basis of the chancellor’s statement in response to Trump’s victory. “Germany and America are connected by values of democracy, freedom and respect for the law and the dignity of man, independent of origin, skin color, religion, gender, sexual orientation or political views,” she said, adding that “I offer the next president of the United States close cooperation on the basis of these values.” This relatively anodyne statement managed to confirm to many, especially Democrats in the United States, that Merkel was the antithesis of Trump.
Merkel’s great political skill is to embody the consensus that has existed in German politics for the last two decades.
Something similar happened during the refugee crisis in 2015, which even many of her critics see as one of the high points of Merkel’s tenure. Commentators and analysts portrayed Merkel as an exemplary humanitarian leader largely because of what she said—“we can do this”—not what her government did. Germany did not “open its borders” to over a million asylum seekers in 2015, as is often said. Rather, it was simply unable to stop them from arriving there. Moreover, Merkel subsequently shifted course and took steps to prevent immigrants from reaching Europe, including striking a dubious deal with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to keep migrants in Turkey.
Merkel’s great political skill is to embody the consensus that has existed in German politics for the last two decades. Before she was first elected as chancellor in 2005, the Social Democrats had already moved to the right on economic policy under Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and implemented a series of structural reforms usually associated with the right. After her election, Merkel formed a grand coalition with the Social Democrats—the first of three in the last four electoral periods—that further solidified the centrist consensus in German politics. She pulled the Christian Democrats to the left on social and cultural issues, “modernizing” the party in the view of many but going too far for many conservative Germans.
As chancellor, Merkel followed German public opinion closely. Polling guided every important decision she made during her tenure, including those that her admirers viewed as demonstrating brave and decisive leadership—welcoming refugees in 2015, for instance, or accelerating the planned closure of Germany’s nuclear power plants after the 2011 Fukushima disaster in Japan. During election campaigns, she sought to avoid discussing controversial issues and to co-opt other parties’ policies to deter voters from turning out for them—a strategy that the pollster Matthias Jung has dubbed “asymmetric demobilization.”
This strategy allowed Merkel to stay in power for 16 years, and it would have allowed her to remain in the chancellery even longer had she not decided to step down after four terms. But Merkel’s strategy has been terrible for German democracy. As the political scientist Sheri Berman and I have argued, German politics has been characterized for the last two decades not by polarization but by its opposite: convergence. This has come with a cost: as the Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats aligned ideologically around the Merkel consensus, a “representation gap” opened up, leaving many Germans to believe that their views are not represented.
One consequence of these developments—and one of Merkel’s clearest legacies—is the emergence of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD). As the party’s name suggests, it was a direct response to Merkel’s politics of no alternatives—in particular, her approach to the euro crisis that began in 2010 and to the refugee crisis in 2015. In the last election, in 2017, the AfD entered the Bundestag—the first time since the creation of the Federal Republic in 1949 that a far-right party had done so. It was in part the rise of the AfD that forced Merkel to form another grand coalition with the Social Democrats after that election. And because she did so, the AfD became the leading opposition party. (The AfD’s vote share dropped from 13 percent in 2017 to around ten percent in 2021, and if either the Social Democrats or the Christians Democrats can form a government with the Greens and the Liberal Democrats, the AfD will lose its role as the leading opposition party.)
Despite the AfD’s rise, the Merkel consensus has remained intact and will likely endure through the next government. Depending on whether the new coalition is led by the Social Democrats or the Christian Democrats, and which ministries they and the other coalition parties control, there will no doubt be changes in some areas of domestic policy, such as how to pay for spending on infrastructure and how best to mitigate climate change. If Scholz becomes chancellor, the Social Democrats will push him to the left in much the same way that the progressive wing of the U.S. Democratic Party has pushed President Joe Biden to the left.
But in most of the areas that matter for Europe, the United States, and the rest of the world, the parties’ differences will essentially cancel one another out. For example, the Social Democrats are more receptive to eurozone reform than are the Christian Democrats. But the Free Democrats, who received 11.5 percent of the vote, are much less receptive and will likely demand the Finance Ministry as a condition of joining a coalition. This would limit the possibility of meaningful reform of the EU’s fiscal rules in a coalition of the Social Democrats, the Free Democrats, and the Greens, who received 15 percent of the vote.
For similar reasons, Merkel’s policy of engagement toward China is unlikely to change, even though it has been widely criticized. Foreign policy analysts have put a lot of hope in the Greens. Although they are more likely to want to cooperate with China on climate change, they are more hawkish on China than the Christian Democrats, at least rhetorically. But the Social Democrats are not, and China policy tends to be made in the chancellery, so a coalition led by them is unlikely to be much more hawkish on China even if it includes the Greens.
This continuity in foreign policy may be reassuring for supporters of Merkel, who are often centrists. But critics of Merkel, especially of her approach to the eurozone and to authoritarian states such as China, are also likely to be disappointed by a government led by Scholz or Laschet. Above all, there is unlikely to be a major transformation of Germany’s export-dependent economy, which lies behind both of these problems in German foreign policy.
The inertia in German politics is partly structural. Unlike the United Kingdom or the United States, Germany has a consensual rather than adversarial political system. Moreover, Germany’s federal system and powerful independent institutions—including its Constitutional Court, which has impeded eurozone reform—tend to resist dramatic policy shifts. But through her depoliticized style and her transformation of German interparty dynamics, Merkel has exacerbated those tendencies of the German system. As a result, even if Germany’s next government isn’t another grand coalition, it will still feel a lot like one.
Germany Gets a New Chancellor—But the Same Old Foreign Policy