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Angela Merkel’s Legacy as Europe’s Iron Chancellor

[Faseeha Hashmi]

Having presided as Germany‘s Chancellor since 2005, few and far between can argue that Angela Merkel has left a lasting impact on Europe. She has sealed her legacy as the European Union‘s longest-serving incumbent head of government through her leadership in forging a common European identity, while her foreign policy achievements have cemented her status as Europe’s leading figure – both central and essential to the EU’s continuing stability and prosperity.

Merkel, known affectionately as “Mutti” (Mummy) by her admirers, is often described as the de facto leader of the EU – with Times magazine having lionised her as the most powerful woman leading the Free World. Having topped the Forbes’ list of 100 most powerful women in the world for eight years running, Merkel has repeatedly shattered the proverbial glass ceiling.

Often compared to former UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, Merkel’s legacy is not one without controversy. Consequently, only through a broad examination of the achievements and failures throughout her political career is it possible to comprehend Merkel’s importance to the continued stability and presence of the EU as the world’s leading supranational entity.


Early in her career, Merkel built her name as a Federal Minister for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety. While her leadership has spanned 13 years and 4 terms, as of October 2018 the Iron Chancellor signalled her desire to withdraw from power – having announced that she would not seek re-election as leader of the centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), and indicating her plans to step down as Germany’s Chancellor in 2021. While her anticipated exit from political life will have an indisputable impact on the rest of Europe, her defining policies and leadership style will leave an enduring impact on the region and the world.

As the child of a splintered communist country, Angela rose to become the great proponent of European integration. Among her greatest challenges in leading the way for the creation of the Eurozone, Merkel has continuously struggled to rein in the antagonistic challenges created by the advances of identity politics.

As with Thatcher, there is more to Merkel than her political prowess. Both leaders studied chemistry, with Merkel holding a Doctorate in quantum chemistry, a field where women are notoriously underrepresented. It is hardly surprising to note that, ever since her earliest days in politics, Merkel has been consistently underestimated by both friend and foe.

Cultivating an image of prudent and pragmatic leadership, Merkel has long enjoyed the support of German voters’ as the guarantor of her country’s stability and prosperity. By and large, Merkel has adopted the same approach towards ensuring greater European unity and harmony. However, this has not come without challenges.

Regional Cooperation

Crucial to her political performance has been the formation and continuing integrity of the European project, to which she was instrumental in establishing. Merkel has staked her legacy on upholding the political, economic, and diplomatic foundations of the European Bloc. Once considered the hallmark of European pride for the rule of law, liberal values and exceptional statecraft – regional integration has become an increasingly onerous process for many EU member states. This is most eminently epitomised by French President Emmanuel Macron’s comment, questioning the very purpose of NATO being “brain dead”.

According to former Prime Minister Tony Blair the rise of anxieties in the UK, and its promise of departure from the EU, could be replicated in any other country – potentially diminishing the authority of the bloc as an political and economic entity. This was expanded upon by Blair, who further outlined that the changing power dynamics within Europe have created an environment where the continent is defined by political power over diplomacy and negotiation, with the UK having much to lose if it is no longer tethered to the European continent.

“In an increasingly multipolar world, in which GDP and population will increasingly be correlated, the rationale for Europe is stronger than ever. Together, Europe’s peoples can wield genuine influence. Alone, they will over time decline in relative importance.”

Echoing these concerns from political leaders, Merkel has commented on the UK’s departure as creating “a potential competitor”, suggesting that Berlin currently harbours significant concerns for UK-EU cooperation post-Brexit.

Having built a reputation in crisis management and consensus-building domestically, Merkel’s dexterous skills have transferred well internationally. When the EU faced a financial crisis in the aftermath of the 2008 Global Financial Crisis, Merkel’s notorious austerity measures and leadership worked to prevent a collapse of the Greek economy. Inching towards bankruptcy, Greece and many EU members perceived the measures as arduous and taxing upon their economic development. Regardless, the measures later proved necessary in order to protect the health and integrity of the Eurozone amidst the global recession.

Amongst all these predictions, it is important to remind ourselves that the splintering of Europe is not a new phenomenon. While the existence of the EU initially drew broad support from the majority of European nations, present circumstances have resulted in a resurgence of nationalism, identity politics and diplomatic distrust. In the absence of Merkel’s leadership and counsel, it is difficult to envision how the EU will endure the divisive elements and events which continue to threaten its existence – evident within the endless saga of Britain’s disavowing divorce and the rise of far-right parties across Europe.

Europe’s Immigration Crisis

Merkel distinguished herself through her compassionate approach to the European border crisis of 2015. During the unfolding humanitarian crisis, an influx of asylum seekers and migrants entering the EU from Africa prompted European leaders to re- develop a more coherent European asylum policy.

Under international law, asylum has been settled as a fundamental right – granting asylum has been considered an international obligation since the 1951 Geneva Convention on the protection of refugees. However, the crisis stemmed from the Dublin regulations, adopted in 2003, which governs how EU member states examine asylum applications. Under that instrument, the country where the migrant enters is legally required to deal with the claim. While the Dublin system assumes that the asylum laws and practices of EU States are based on the same common standards, in reality asylum legislation and practice still vary widely from country to country, causing asylum seekers to receive differing treatment across Europe.

During the crisis, it became clear that the geographical points of entry for refugees into the EU had resulted in a considerably uneven share of people between member states. Owing to conflicts between EU law and the Dublin regulation, there existed no clear-cut system for dealing with the border crisis. Indeed, the Common European Asylum Policy currently faces an enduring dilemma where some nations have been consistently overburdened. Countries such as Italy, Greece, and to a lesser extent Malta and Spain, which are at the frontline of migrants’ routes to Europe, have repeatedly protested against the disproportionate responsibilities that Dublin imposes on them.

In response, Merkel advocated for an open and streamlined remedy, touting that Europe was obligated to honour its international agreements, preserve freedom of movement as outlined within the Schengen Treaty, and respect the human rights of refugees fleeing persecution by establishing a common distribution system. Since announcing its open door policy in August 2015, Germany has to-date greeted nearly 1 million migrants and refugees as part of what Merkel had christened Germany’s culture of welcoming or “Willkommenskultur.”

Accordingly, Merkel reiterated Europe’s duty to shoulder its responsibilities as an EU member, and pioneered a humane European response. She did this by opening Germany’s borders and temporarily suspending EU laws requiring asylum seekers to register within the first member state they entered. Unfortunately, many EU members have buckled under the increased volume of people marching through their territory en-route to Germany, leading to an increase in right-wing nationalist sentiment.

Regardless, Germany’s decision to reimpose border controls in September 2015 was followed closely by other EU countries. This policy reversal caused many to deem Merkel’s leadership inconsistent, including Mekong Mesghena – an expert on migration and diversity from the Heinrich Boll Foundation – who stated that Merkel “may not have a plan”. While Merkel’s decision to reimpose border controls may prima facie appear hypocritical, in reality it was a strategic act designed to pressure fellow EU leaders into accepting more refugees while allowing Germany time to prepare to properly accommodate the overwhelming numbers of new migrants.

Although the numbers of people seeking safety has since greatly diminished, EU leaders have not yet established a systematic regional cooperation system to manage the flow of migrants and asylum seekers into the region. Moreover, the lacklustre political will to do so leaves the situation unresolved for the foreseeable future. Establishing a quota system must be considered necessary from an economic standpoint, especially when considering how an efficient distribution of people may even out the marginal costs of integrating refugees.

The EU’s inability to collectively deal with this issue has created more deeply polarised European societies and fuelled the rise of the far-right movements across the continent. Regardless, Merkel’s decision-making abilities in promoting Germany’s open-door policies stands testament to her lasting legacy as a compassionate leader and role model, unafraid of making unpopular decisions in the interests of the greater good.


In summation, Angela Merkel’s reign as the Iron Chancellor of Europe demonstrates the need for strong and compassionate leaders as the stewards of Europe’s future. Her ability to engineer political cohesion between the right and left of German politics is an achievement without parallel, but has not come without challenges.

Merkel has been proven as a competent multitasker in managing the economies of both Germany and the EU throughout the European debt crisis. However, with her inevitable exit in sight Merkel will also be leaving a region doubtful over its collective response to future humanitarian crises – where the responsibility for migration has yet to be properly shared, and the rules harmonised, across Europe.

Despite having a presumed favoured successor for leadership of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) in Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, Merkel has declined to back Annegret as Germany’s next chancellor in order to avoid unduly influencing the election. Consequently, the leader of the opposing liberal FDP party, Christian Lindner, has called for Merkel’s ruling conservative bloc to “be prepared for a real new beginning in Germany”.

While it remains to be seen whether Annegret can live up to Merkel’s legacy as the next German chancellor and de facto leader of the EU, what is certain is that Merkel’s influence has left an undeniable mark on the political balance of Europe. Only by learning from her shortcomings and strengths as a leader can the next generation of EU leaders meet the growing social and economic challenges posed by an increasingly divided continent and ensure continued peace and stability in Europe.


Faseeha Hashmi holds a Master of International Relations from the University of Melbourne, with an interest in community engagement and global politics.


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