German Elections: Merkel’s Legacy and the Future of German Foreign Policy

Illustration from FPCI UI

On 26 September, millions of German citizens had gone down to the ballot boxes to participate in the 2021 general election that would determine the composition of the Bundestag, the nation’s federal parliament. Six major political parties have competed to win the most seats in parliament as well as the grand prize—the German chancellorship—in an increasingly challenging political landscape. However, one major difference in this year’s election is the absence of Germany’s “iron lady”, incumbent Chancellor Angela Merkel.

For the past 16 consecutive years, Merkel has held onto power as Germany’s head of government, a relatively long term in office for a democratically elected leader. She led Europe’s largest economy with a steady and cautious hand, even though her chancellorship has been marked with numerous ups and downs at the national and regional levels, socio-political and economic crises, and fluctuating relations with global powers. However, Merkel’s leadership has also been characterized as a stable and firm one. She ended her fourth term this year with a substantially high approval rating.

Merkel’s decision to not run for a fifth term as Chancellor in the 2021 election had sent shockwaves worldwide. It would be difficult to imagine Germany and the EU without Merkel at the helm. So, what legacy has her leadership left on Germany, how has she affected the country’s foreign policy and what can we expect ahead after the election?

Steady, Stable, and Confident Leadership

Angela Merkel was first elected as leader of her party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), in 2000. She had previously served in several ministerial positions before finally being elected as Germany’s first-ever woman chancellor in 2005. Merkel was relatively not well-known outside of Germany at the start of her first term. However, when she took the centre stage in foreign affairs herself instead of leaving it all to her foreign minister, the international community started to notice her strong presence.

Facing other renowned world leaders like US President Bush, UK Prime Minister Blair, and Russian President Putin during the 2007 G8 Summit hosted in Germany, she showed careful and confident leadership. Germany’s views and priorities were vocally brought to the forefront of discussions, including the issue of climate change and energy efficiency—one of Merkel’s personal strong suits, considering her academic background in natural sciences. Besides that, the summit was a chance for Germany to “give globalization a human face” and focus on its social impacts, especially concerning combating poverty and improving healthcare in Africa.

Throughout much of her time as Germany’s most powerful figure, Merkel had to endure numerous challenges that demanded decisive leadership. From the 2008-09 global financial crisis that heavily impacted the Euro, the rocky relationship with Russia following its 2014 annexation of Crimea, the unprecedented flooding of refugees entering Europe in 2015, and finally, to the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic, she managed to keep her country (and the entire European Union) together as its “tireless crisis manager”. Merkel has also shown that upholding pragmatism above traditional ideological boundaries is sometimes necessary to resolve certain crises, even if it means losing standing domestically.

Advancing German and European Interests

Germany (and specifically Merkel’s administration) is widely regarded as the de facto leader of the European Union. During her time in office, Germany has specifically emphasized international cooperation especially in the context of EU and NATO relations. Leading the charge during the 2007-2008 financial crisis, Merkel played a crucial role in managing the crisis as well as several negotiations in the European region. The most important of these negotiations is the Treaty of Lisbon and the Berlin Declaration, both of which emphasize unity among European nations, especially members of the EU.

Internationally, Merkel’s Germany focuses on building stronger transatlantic relations specifically with the United States. Former US President Barack Obama has claimed that Germany under Merkel was his closest international partner. However, after the election of Donald Trump, relations between the two states soured. Merkel even goes as far as saying that the US is no longer a reliable ally. 

It can be seen that Merkel’s Germany has seen itself from a high promoter of international cooperation and a close ally of its historical friends, into having a more independent foreign policy that focuses on keeping the unity of the European Union. Rocked by the separation of the United Kingdom from the European Union, Merkel has made it a priority to keep the rest of the membership from leaving. During her era, Germany and the EU has seen stability despite multiple crises, it can only be speculated on how a change in leadership may affect this stability.

What to Expect Ahead

Germany’s multiparty system facilitates the possibility of multiple candidates for chancellor, though only a few stand a real chance of winning based on various opinion polls. From Merkel’s own center-right CDU/CSU, there’s Armin Laschet; from her center-left coalition partner SPD, there’s Olaf Scholz (currently Merkel’s deputy chancellor); and from the Greens, there’s Annalena Baerbock. Whichever party and candidate win the most seats will have the first chance at forming a working coalition and formulating Germany’s future foreign policy.

Traditionally, German foreign policy is built upon two pillars. First is the respect for peace, security, democracy, and human rights. Second is the support for German companies to enter international markets and improve conditions for doing business. These priorities may be continued if the SPD could assert its will over its coalition partners, as Olaf Scholz and the SPD are currently seen as the candidate who will be continuing most of the current government’s policies and stances. Scholz himself has publicly stated that he and Merkel do have a common position on many issues. 

Armin Laschet, the current leader of the CDU/CSU, has some differing opinions for Germany’s future foreign policy. He believes that Germany lacks the will and capability of having a foreign policy independent from major global powers. Laschet has expressed his hopes for the EU to have more active and independent geopolitical policies of its own. Many of his critics have cited that Laschet has a somewhat soft stance on Russia and China’s influence and even supported a closer relationship with China economically. Despite this, he also argued that Germany should increase military spending and have a more active role in NATO military operations, especially in Africa and the Mediterranean.

If the Greens are confident enough in their ability and power to shape the coalition negotiations, they may push to sway Germany’s foreign policy towards diverting support to more environmentally-friendly economic practices and tougher stances on alleged human rights abuses, such as in China or Russia. Annalena Baerbock has mentioned an “active German foreign politics” to strengthen Europe so that “authoritarian powers” don’t get to step in and fill the void left by Germany.

Plenty of challenges lie ahead for Germany in the near future. From climate crises to economic transformations, to transnational and domestic terrorism, and the rising influence of Russia and China. In the end, whoever is granted the democratic mandate to become the next chancellor will inherit the enormous task of maintaining unity and stability in a diverse Germany, as well as ensuring the country’s position as Europe’s respected leading power.

References can be accessed at https://bit.ly/DipLook-GermanElections-References

Kenzie Sultan Ryvantya and Muhammad Syahravi Hatta are staffs of Research and Analysis Division FPCI Chapter UI Board of 2021.

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