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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.

A survey conducted in twelve EU countries by the European Council on Foreign Relations, with results released this week, revealed that many Europeans see Merkel as a unifying power and believe Germany will continue to lead the EU. However, pessimism is growing at home as well as abroad regarding 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.” Germany only 15% said their country was still in its golden age today. Only 9% believe it’s still on the horizon.

More broadly across Europe, 34% of Europeans polled said Germany’s star has waned, 21% stated it is still in “golden age”, and only 10% claimed that this time is coming.

This data shows uncertainty among Germany’s neighbours and the EU about Germany’s future, as well as its leadership position in the EU after Merkel leaves office on September 26, following the federal elections.

Merkel Vs. Macron

Despite some controversial policies, Merkel, age 67, is leaving office on her terms. While Merkel is still a prominent figurehead within Europe and more than her French counterpart Emmanuel Macron (an analyst expects Macron to attempt to fill the leadership gap left by Merkel), she remains a highly respected leader.

The ECFR asked Europeans who they would vote in a hypothetical election between France’s Macron and Germany’s Merkel for the EU presidency role. A majority (41%) of respondents voted for Merkel. Only 14% voted for Macron.

This hypothetical election saw the greatest support for Merkel being received in Spain (57%), Portugal (52%), and the Netherlands (58%). The French would support Merkel 32% to Macron 20%, and Spain 58%.

Perhaps it is not surprising to see such a strong affection 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 led Germany and the wider EU through many traumas, including the 2008-2009 financial crisis, which saw the collapse of the eurozone’s sovereign debt, and then the crisis that followed in 2012, and 2015-2016, when the EU faced its biggest migration crisis. She was most recently involved in Europe’s response the the coronavirus pandemic.

France’s President Emmanuel Macron and Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel look at Donald Trump (front L), as well as Turkey’s President Recep Tyyip Erdan (front R), during a photo taken by their families at the NATO summit held at Grove Hotel, Watford northeast of London on December 4, 2019

AFP – Getty Images Merkel’s policy during crisis times hasn’t always been a popular choice.| AFP | Getty Images

Merkel’s policies during periods of crisis have not always won her friends, however. As Germany demanded Athens be subject to strict austerity as part of its international bailouts, Hartman became a hate figure during Greece’s current debt crisis.

Her decision to permit hundreds of thousands, mostly Syrian, migrants to enter Germany as part of the current migration crisis created consternation. It was widely seen to have been a way to boost support for right-wing Alternative for Germany.

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.

Piotr Burawas, the coauthor and chief of ECFR Warsaw, stated that Merkelism is unsustainable and Germany’s next chancellor would have to come up with a new strategy.

“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. The EU requires a visionary Germany to defend the EU’s place and stand for its values.