Dr Leon Mangasarian was an editor and reporter for Bloomberg News, Deutsche-Presse Agentur and United Press International in East Berlin, Bonn, Berlin and Brussels. He received a PhD from the London School of Economics in 1993. He is co-author (with Jan Techau) of a book on German security policy, Führungsmacht Deutschland, and is now a freelance writer living in Potsdam, Germany, and on a farm in southeast Brandenburg state.
All political lives end in failure unless cut off midstream. Angela Merkel proves Enoch Powell’s theorem as her chancellorship staggers to its end after 16 years amid a botched Covid-19 vaccination campaign.
If Merkel had learned one lesson from her mentor, Helmut Kohl, it would have been to get out while the getting was good. He was also tossed out of office after 16 years.
Merkel is departing with no signature achievement. True, she’s dealt with major crises, but her policy responses have at best been fair to middling. Far too often they’ve been flawed, or she simply avoids tough issues.
Germany is failing to get jabs into people’s arms. Just nine percent of Germans are fully vaccinated, compared with 56 percent in Israel, 35 percent in the US and 27 percent in the UK. Merkel insisted on handing vaccine procurement to the EU and thus to Ursula von der Leyen, a competency-challenged ex-German defense minister co-responsible for wrecking Germany’s Bundeswehr.
Insufficient vaccines is worsened by Germany’s obsession with making sure nobody jumps the queue. Instead of using the nation’s excellent network of general practitioners, the wheel was reinvented by setting up huge vaccination centers. Rationing vaccine by age groups means binning thousands of doses at the end of the day.
This debacle again shows Merkel as the tactician and not a grand strategist. She’s reactive, rather than calculating means to big-picture ends. So notorious is she for dithering that her name has become a new German verb: to “Merkeln” means either to do nothing and avoid making a decision or, when you do, to hide it in gauze and fog.
Merkel’s bad ideas aren’t limited to public health. Here are some of her greatest hits.
Merkel’s fundamental misstep was shoving her once centrist-conservative Christian Democratic Union to the left. The CDU became social democratic, making its conservatives homeless, prompting some to join the Alternative for Germany (AfD).
Her 2015 open border migration policy led to the AfD’s resurrection. The Christian Democratic bloc is cratering, with polls putting it at 23 percent, behind the opposition Greens. Under Kohl the Christian Democrats regularly won over 40 percent. In a further act of self-harm, the CDU chose the Merkelist premier of North-Rhine Westphalia, Armin Laschet, as its chancellor candidate for September’s election.
Merkel is a high-tax leader. Among her first acts was raising value-added tax to 19 percent from 16 percent, and income and other tax burdens have shot up under her chancellorship. German tax revenue was 452 billion euros in her first year in office. In 2019 it was 800 billion euros. Germany now has one of the highest overall tax rates in the OECD club of rich nations.
Meanwhile, the Chancellor failed to revamp Germany’s economy. The last major reform was almost 20 years ago under Gerhard Schröder, a Social Democrat. It was political suicide on his part, but laid the foundation for prosperity.
Today, German business staggers under suffocating bureaucracy. There’s a stunning example near Berlin, where Tesla is building a “Gigafactory” that will create an estimated 40,000 jobs. Construction is almost finished, but German bureaucrats still refuse to issue a building permit. Elon Musk has been warned he’s investing at his own risk and that if the permit is denied he’ll have to tear down the factory. Merkel thinks more bureaucrats as the answer: since 2016 there’s been a 22 percent increase in the number of employees in her chancellery and ministries.*
Germany now has Europe’s highest electricity costs. Households and most businesses pay 43 percent above the EU average. Merkel’s botched renewables shift slams consumers with huge bills subsidising wind and solar. Merkel’s other energy move was to panic after Japan’s Fukushima nuclear disaster and move forward the closure of all nuclear plants to 2022. At the same time, she’s speeding up closures of coal-fired power plants.
The result? Germany’s Bundesrechnungshof, which audits government management, warns that Merkelian energy policies risk triggering electricity blackouts. After closing nuclear and coal-fired plants, Germany, on winter days with no sun or wind, will import electricity from France and Poland that’s produced by – you guessed it – nuclear or coal-fired plants.
Merkel’s other energy/geopolitical debacle is the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, running under the Baltic Sea, to bring natural gas from Russia to Germany. The pipeline has pissed off Germany’s NATO and EU allies. (Everyone but Merkel knows the Kremlin uses energy as a political weapon.)
The Poles and the Baltics are furious; Ukraine, the current route of Russian pipelines to Europe, is fearful; and both the Trump and now the Biden administrations pledged sanctions on companies building the pipeline.
Merkel insists Nord Stream 2 is just another business deal.
China is Merkel’s favorite among global dictatorships. It’s only a slight exaggeration to describe her chancellorship one long kowtow. She regularly visits China to support German exports and investment. Merkel crowned Germany’s EU presidency by ramming through an EU-China investment accord, despite pleas from the incoming Biden administration to wait.
Merkel is wobbly on minority rights, Beijing’s military operations in the South China Sea, the crushing of democracy in Hong Kong, and threats to Taiwan.
A key part of Germany’s body politic is memory of the Holocaust and Nazi crimes. There are two parts: never forget history, no matter how awful; and “never again,” as in never tolerate even a hint of genocide. Joschka Fischer, then Foreign Minister, evoked this in backing the 1999 NATO intervention in Kosovo by saying “never again Auschwitz, never again genocide.”
More than anyone in Germany, the Chancellor must personify these tenets. Yet Merkel has stumbled. “Never again” is brushed off over China’s persecution of the Uighurs. Merkel refuses to follow NATO allies the US, Canada, and the Netherlands, which accuse Beijing of genocide.
As for history, Merkel made clear her displeasure over a 2016 German parliament resolution describing the killings of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire (Germany’s World War I ally) as genocide. Merkel skipped the vote and then, to make sure that Ankara got the message, her spokesman declared the resolution wasn’t legally binding.
Overlooking a century-old genocide is easier than angering the Turkish government she needed to block migrants from Europe. Merkel and the EU paid Turkey billions so Ankara would do the dirty work of closing EU borders.
Merkel’s failings are striking in her endless harping about “digitalization.” For all Merkel’s talk, inaction is the result. Forget Estonian-style e-Government. Germans rely on fax machines, signatures and humorless officials wielding stamps and well-inked stamp pads. Anyway, e-Government couldn’t work in Germany because it requires a decent mobile phone system. Merkel has failed to plug the massive holes Germany’s network. I’ve had better mobile service in the remotest parts of Scotland or Namibia.
Politicians everywhere reach their “sell-by” date after eight to ten years. Merkel, despite human decency and incorruptibility, has long since reached hers. Every day she remains in office is a lost day for Germany. This year is wasted for lawmaking with elections in September, followed by coalition negotiations that could run into 2022.
Germany desperately needs a member of parliament, like Leopold Amery in the House of Commons in 1940, to stand up and speak the truth:
“You have sat too long here for any good you have been doing … In the name of God, go!”
*Simon Haas, Jonas Hermann and Charlotte Eckstein, “Wuchernder Staat: Deutschlands Regierungsapparat wird grösser und grösser,“ Neue Zürcher Zeitung, 10 April 2021.