Pragmatic chancellor. Angela Merkel is leaving. Will she be missed?

German Chancellor Angela Merkel is ending her nearly 16-year reign and will step down from the office that she has held since November 2005. She is not seeking another term in elections scheduled for September 26 this year. Only rarely in a democracy have we seen such a long presidency of state affairs.  She will be missed both domestically and in the European Union, including Poland – after all, Germany is Poland’s main economic partner. How should Angela Merkel’s chancellorship be assessed?

In answering this question, I am assisted by experts: General Stanisław Koziej, former head of the National Security Bureau during the presidency of Bronisław Komorowski; Kamil Frymark, senior specialist in Germany and Northern Europe Team at the Centre for Eastern Studies; Wojciech Jakóbik, co-founder and editor-in-chief of; and Adam Traczyk, vice president of the management board of Global.Lab, a think-tank, an expert on Germany.

The feat of Angela Merkel

Angela Merkel went against the model of climbing the ladder in politics already at the beginning of her political journey in the recently reunified Germany. As a woman from the former East Germany (and also a divorcee), raised Protestant rather than Catholic (which is not insignificant for the CDU), and with no sufficient connections inside the party such as friendships in the Christian Democratic youth movement, she was able to break established patterns in West Germany. She went from someone scorned and disregarded as „Kohl’s girl” to the most influential politician not only in Germany but also in Europe„, notes Kamil Frymark.

Her effectiveness is reflected not only in the fact that she has won another election, which made her the second longest-serving German chancellor, and unless a new head of government is appointed by 17 December, she will still lead the way. She is also incredibly popular among Germans. In a Politbarometer ZDF poll of 17 September, 80% of interviewees rated Chancellor Merkel’s work well,” adds Kamil Frymark.

Pragmatism, you fool!

Merkel’s reign has not been an idyllic one. The country, Europe, and the world were torn by crises that required the leader of the largest country in the European Union to commit. The financial crisis and the Eurozone’s falling over the edge, the migration crisis and the millions of people flooding into Europe, the protracted wars in Afghanistan and Iraq (in the latter case, Germany refused to participate in the war, while the effects of both the war and the refusal to participate lingered), the decision to shut down nuclear power plants after the disaster in Fukushima, Japan, and finally the coronavirus pandemic and its economic consequences for European countries – each of these issues gave Chancellor Merkel a headache. And these are only the most important ones from the long list of problems and challenges she faced during her reign. How has she dealt with them? What kept her afloat and confirmed her seat in subsequent elections? Pragmatism.

Merkel was a typical, pragmatic German leader, keeping a watchful eye on German interests. She not only had a good grasp of the real security interests of Europe and Germany and had duly recognized the important role of a pro-European Poland in the pursuit of these interests. At the same time, she was able to combine the realistic pragmatism, so necessary in European context, with the will, ability, and patience to seek political compromises,” says Gen. Stanisław Koziej. Kamil Frymark has a similar view, for him, Merkel was a radically pragmatic politician, who successfully led Germany through crises. Adam Traczyk goes even further and assesses Merkel as a painfully pragmatic politician.

The other, nasty side of pragmatism

Pragmatism is not costless, however. Our commentators recognise this when asked about „mistakes and distortions”. Kamil Frymark argues that insufficient determination for deeper reforms has led Germany to lag behind in many areas. The pandemic has made this very clear in the area of digitalisation, especially in public administration, education, and the health care system. This does not however change the fact that for the vast majority of Germans the Merkel era will be a time of prosperity and relative peace. Hence the ongoing election campaign is focused on finding a successor who can offer a similar style of government and efficiency.

And how does Wojciech Jakóbik sum up Merkel’s rule? It has been a period of schizophrenic policy towards Russia. Merkel has been tossing and turning between hardline Ostpolitik, which is based on rapprochement with the Russians through cooperation crowned by Nord Stream 2, and hardline transatlantic policy, symbolized by sanctions for the unlawful annexation of Crimea, which is in line with EU and NATO goals. It sounds like the essence of pragmatism, where the rationale of all sides must be weighed and a decision made at the end. Resolving crises within the EU has not been easy either. Merkel would „make a move” on European policy issues when she absolutely had to, concludes Adam Traczyk.

Merkel and the Polish issue – Polish-German relations

It is hard to deny that Merkel’s background (Polish ancestors, her youth in East Germany) gave rise to a kind of idea in Poland about her sentimental attitude towards our country. Was there really something like that and was Merkel more open and „friendly” towards Poland than her predecessors or leaders of other European countries? Finally, has Poland used or at least tried to use this „sentiment”? Gen. Stanisław Koziej claims that Merkel showed a clearly visible hint of sentiment towards Poland. Did we get anything out of it? For Wojciech Jakóbik, Chancellor Merkel was a good ally of Poland in NATO and a difficult partner in the EU. In contrast, the new chancellor may be a worse ally and a more difficult partner. Adam Traczyk, on the other hand, claims that nothing came out of this sentiment. She did not give us any presents, she carried out pragmatic German politics, Scholz will be too (Olaf Scholz, vice-chancellor in the current federal government and leader of the Social Democrats from SDP, who are now leading in the pre-election polls).

Adam Traczyk also commented on the Polish-German relations, which he observes very closely due to his job. In his opinion, Merkel’s term in office is a period of wasted opportunity. He highlights the role of pragmatism, which should have been employed. According to Traczyk, from Poland’s perspective, this means that getting along with her was possible no matter what kind of government was in power in Warsaw. PO (Civic Platform) rule was marked by a good climate in Polish-German relations. This helped us at the EU level, but ideas for common bilateral projects were missing. When PIS (Law and Justice) took power, they chose to feed anti-German phobias instead of acknowledging this pragmatism and responding with the same. The PiS government did not even notice that they had an ally in Berlin in matters of the rule of law. Merkel adopted an attitude of friendly indifference toward the PiS government while prioritizing – in her view – the preservation of EU cohesion. The Merkel era’s summary of the Polish-German relations is poor, and its only positive aspect is the excellent trade and economic relations, which apparently do not need any political support in order to develop.

What next? Are we going to miss Chancellor Merkel?

Simple question, simple answer. General Stanisław Koziej sees it clearly: we will miss her. Especially in Poland. Adam Traczyk does not seem to see any reasons to be tragic: it will be a bit different, but this German pragmatism will remain. The question is whether we will be able to take advantage of this pragmatism. Wojciech Jakóbik is able to come to terms with the changing of the guard in Berlin: it is not a monumental figure, nor some iron lady.

The Vistula and Rhine rivers will keep flowing, and Poland and Germany will continue to border each other. We are „condemned” to dialogue and cooperation. It will certainly look different, especially if the Greens join the government – as part of a coalition. However, it is unlikely that the huge ship with the German flag will suddenly change course due to the upcoming elections. The „traditional German pragmatism” mentioned several times in this piece is a dominant feature among the political class. For sure, however, now that Angela Merkel is leaving, Germany and Europe will be losing a very experienced politician, who has been battle-hardened in times of crisis and has been a master player on the domestic scene. It will be worth continuing to benefit from her knowledge and experience, irrespective of being critical of her individual achievements.

And how can we rate her entire time in office, which just to remind you, began in November 2005? For me, it would be a 4 on the six-grade scale. Chancellor Merkel was a solid student who generally did not stand out in any particular way. And just to make it clear, this is not a disadvantage since politicians are usually exceptional in their scandals and embarrassing statements. Hard-working, determined, efficient, but lacking „that little something”, a kind of spark or vision (on the other hand, Prime Minister Donald Tusk once made a good point about a vision: if someone has visions they should see a doctor). But is it possible to do anything in politics other than persist, maintain the status quo, when you conduct politics with no vision? Well, as Chancellor Angela Merkel has shown, it is certainly possible to stay in power and enjoy the great support of voters. Instead of a vision, Merkel proved herself mainly in crisis management and she managed to achieve the framework goals, i.e. the development of Germany and the maintenance of EU cohesion, despite external turbulence.

Many thanks to General Stanisław Koziej, Kamil Frymark, Wojciech Jakóbik and Adam Traczyk for sharing their thoughts with me.

Piotr Wołejko

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